Review / Concert 5 CIMF: Curious cats share music and a ‘bit of ear’

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Canberra International Music Festival Concert 5, The Griffyn Ensemble – “Ear of the Cat”, Ainslie Arts Centre – Sunday May 1, reviewed by Ian McLean

IN THE centre of the room four mummified cat-like figures lay motionless as a mostly youthful audience, including one appropriately dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh, filed curiously into the Ainslie Arts Centre to take up positions amongst rows of seats set diagonally to the stage.  

Sleeping cats, Griffyn Ensemble. Photo Peter Hislop
Sleeping cats, Griffyn Ensemble. Photo Peter Hislop
They focused on the costumed-cat members of the Griffyn Ensemble until a screen projecting video images of cats scurrying around the streets of Cairo momentarily drew their attention.   Focus back to the human cats as an atmospheric harp roused the slumbering felines as they slowly discarded their mummified claddings with one of them, soprano Susan Ellis, joining the harp in a wailing cat-call.

So set the scene for “Ear of the Cat,” an innovative and quite fascinating 50 minutes of music theatre born of the fertile mind of Michael Sollis, artistic director of the Griffyns after an artistic residency in Cairo,  and Canberra playwright Cathy Petocz.

Even though the incessant wailing of the cats prompted at least one “Mummy, I’m scared, can we please go home”, the majority of the wide-eyed observers were intrigued as rhythmic clapping joined the solemn wail until all cats joined in a joyous cry.   A piccolo (played with great technical skill and wonderful clarity of sound by Kiri Sollis) heralded the now roused cats as they commenced to roam the surrounds scavenging for food investigating even the bags left under chairs by unknowing audience members.   The piccolo cat procured a key which opened a menacing door but the terrifying roar from within frightened off the cats who continued their street wandering rather than explore the unknown world beyond the door.

Somehow a mobile phone/camera/digital device entered the picture which the pleading Grizabella-type cat (Susan Ellis) eventually secured.   Accompanied by a jazz-influenced riff, the brown cat bass (Holly Downes) led the human cats as the digital cats seemed to fight a battle with a scorpion.   Music changed to a most descriptive busy street scene than a more pastoral theme as the collection of cats made another short lived attempt at bravery by returning to reopen the roaring door.

With a vague similarity to Rossini’s “Cat Duet”, Griffyn’s six cat collective reached the finale with a ‘meow’ chant which grew in rhythmic and melodic complexity and soon had the audience responding by imitating hissing, scratching and associated cat sounds.

It was about then we discovered that the ‘ear of the cat’ is in fact a little food snack, a piece of Egyptian bread rolled in the shape of an ear and dipped in a green sauce or hummus mixture.   All cats indulged in some ‘ear of the cat’ with audience members then invited to share a ‘bit of ear’!!   In a nice touch the Griffyn members then invited youngsters to play not just the harp but also a wide variety of instruments which magically appeared.

Overall this was an innovative and fascinating production which, whilst mystifying, was also enthralling.   Michael’s music was catchy and tuneful with sufficient variation in style, tempo and dynamic to ensure that interest amongst the targeted audience was always maintained.

Well done Griffyn’s, another quite incredible cat pulled out of the bag!!!


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