Review / Music from England and Scotland performed with gravitas

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“VOICES OF WATER tell and tell and tell the truths we cannot guess,” soprano Susan Ellis recited as part of her explanation of the poetry in the opening work of “Castles of Refuge”.


The program was inspired by the sea and its danger, tranquillity and its relation to refugees. It also explored the theme of homelessness.

The Red Note Ensemble, visiting from Scotland, have been hosted here by Canberra’s Griffyn Ensemble during a retreat at Four Winds in Bermagui. The music in “Castles of Refuge” focused around England and Scotland, rather than on attempting to represent a wider look at refugees dispersing throughout wider Europe or coming to Australia, for example.

“Sea Chronicles” included texts by Australian poets, which were sung by Ellis, accompanied by the Red Note Ensemble on strings. The first few movements were unsettling, with unresolved tension, the violinists plucking and striking their instruments. The melodic, lilting final movement captured the movement of waves and the peacefulness of the sea.

The comprehensive program notes included references to Australians’ relationship with the coast and ocean, however “Sea Chronicles” did not readily conjured up Australian beach culture or oceans in particular, but had a European old-world feel to it.

Chris Stone in Seavaigers
Chris Stone in Seavaigers
“Seavaigers”, composed by Sally Beamish, was created for two of the leading violin soloists in the Celtic tradition. In this recital, combining the two ensembles, Griffyn’s Chris Stone enthusiastically played first violin. Due to the number of musicians, the harp part was split between flute and mandolin, the flute could have symbolised birds diving and soaring about the ocean, with the mandolin conjuring the Greek coastline. The movement became a reel, but in such a way as to sound hectic and impatient, diving in and out of this sound and rhythm before becoming a lament. The third movement “Haven” vividly painted the picture of imminent arrival after an ocean crossing and the musicians aptly portrayed the excitement of seeing land come into view and the nervous anticipation that must have been felt by seafarers after long and dangerous sea crossings as well as those travelling for leisure.

_20161016_184559The evening’s performance concluded with Gavin Bryars’ “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. When Bryars created this work, he had been studying homelessness around London, including the area around Castle Station. Although that was not mentioned during the evening, it adds a poignancy to the title of the concert. This iconic recording was developed with the addition of strings in mind, but here the soft notes of the flute above the strings was lovely. The addition of the soprano voice as the final element was distracting, and a challenge to process the differences in timing of two vocals, and with such different diction and style. The 23 minute performance of this final work allowed the audience, many of whom were visibly moved, to fully appreciate the gradual and beautifully balanced addition of each instrument to the original looped singing. The musicians gave a nuanced, emotional performance, with gravitas. Even after the final notes faded, the audience was unwilling to break the atmosphere with applause, instead sitting in silent reverence and appreciation.

Once again a classical recital was disappointingly patronised by the younger demographic. It’s a shame that the musical talent of Canberrans and visiting groups is not more widely experienced by a range of audiences, allowing them the chance to enjoy offerings such as those presented by The Griffyn Ensemble and Red Note.


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