Review: Lost songbirds rediscovered in Somme concert

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IN THE latest instalment of “The Flowers of War,” artistic director Christopher Latham sets out, on his own admission, to tug at the heartstrings.

At a pre-show “contextual conversation” where he pitted his emotional understanding against Professor Joan Beaumont’s historical knowledge of the Battle of the Somme, Latham said he didn’t even mind if audience members chose to applaud, although at the end of an affecting concert, the large crowd that packed into the High Court of Australia did.

In  this sensitively-selected  program of 18 compositions, Latham turned his eye and ear onto the musical works and stories of men who served at the Somme. Most did not survive. Some, like Willie Braithwaite Manson and Francis Purcell Warren, vanished without trace. Known as “les disparus,” (the disappeared ones) their names later were recorded on the Thiepval Memorial erected for that purpose.

Others disappeared in another sense. Poet and composer Ivor Gurney suffered a breakdown after the war and spent the rest of his life in psychiatric institutions, never achieving the promise of  the three songs we heard, performed with exquisite clarity by tenor Andrew Goodwin, the Sculthorpe String Quintet and accordionist Andrew Wurzer. All but one of the composition were arranged to involve Wurzer, thus adding an organ-like quality to the performances.

With one of Latham’s favourites, Australian composer and gold medal winning rower, Frederick Septimus Kelly, it was a case of lost talent on a broader front, for he would, had he survived, very likely have become a leader in Australian music.

Perhaps most ephemeral and therefore most haunting pieces  this concert were works performed by  traditional pipers  like Canadian James Cleland Richardson and Pipe Major William Laurie, whose composition “The Battle  of the Somme” we heard near the conclusion of  the concert by Jason Craig. Normally preceding the troops in battle, 330 pipers were killed in action during WWI.

In a quietly moving concert, more can be less, and so it was in “Sacrifice.” Latham’s decision to mixed bugler Graeme Reynold’s rendition of the Last Post with voice and strings proved a tonal mismatch.

The recitation of Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” iced the cake to excess, for though solemn, it is now clichéd, and that certainly cannot be said of the beautiful, nearly-lost music of the Somme.

“SACRIFICE: the lost Songbirds of the Somme”, will be heard at St James King Street, Sydney tomorrow, Friday June 24, the from July 14 will tour for teo weeks,  playing in the churches of the destroyed towns of the Somme.  The program will be recorded for release on Hortus, in their music of World War 1 series.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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