Review / Matt makes the most of his competition music

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Classical guitarist Matt Withers (centre) performs with the Acacia Quartet on Saturday. Photo by Peter Hislop

MATT Withers is a well-established classical guitarist who has become an ambassador for Australian music. Along with his regular performances with a host of groups and artists, much of the music in this concert came from his Matt Withers Australian Music Composition Competition.

In the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion at the National Arboretum on a cold, windy and wet night, it became the perfect setting to hear music for the fusion of classical guitar and string quartet, which were mostly inspired by the artworks of Sue Needham. Several of the paintings were scattered around the pavilion.

The Acacia quartet is made up of Lisa Stewart, first violin, Myee Clohessy, second violin, Stefan Duwe, viola and Anna Martin-Scrase on cello, with Matt Withers on classical guitar.

“Landscape” by Rob Davidson, who is head of composition at the University of Queensland, was inspired to write this piece by the area around the Glasshouse Mountains in south-east Queensland.

The lively, eclectic and somewhat minimalist work came across most effectively for the unusual combination of instruments. It might have even worked without the guitar. The piece included some heavy rock music-like guitar strumming, flowing melodious tunes from the guitar and jumpy rhythmic patterns. It was dynamic and reflective.

Third-place winner Nava Ryan’s piece titled “Solitude” brought about a change of pace. This was sad, soft and meditative that opened for strings only for the first 30 bars or so. Then effectively soft and deep, the guitar came in singing an even sadder song of solitude. Not mournfully sad, but sweet. The cello had prominent and moving moments and the first violin played an expressive melody, which was soon doubled by the second violin. This will prove to be a highly pleasing new Australian composition, especially as the composer only came to music in 2010.

Second place went to Rick Alexander for his piece titled “Storming”. This music didn’t show a lot of effective writing for this guitar and quartet setting. It began with a repetitious movement on the strings with guitar interspersed, then it suddenly turned into another piece without transition. It was slow and even for a few minutes and then another sudden turn into a lively and clear, tonal happy rhythm that bounced along nicely.

First place went to Wade Gregory for his most effective and well-composed piece titled “Water Music”. There was a musical conversation going on between the instruments to begin with and the ideas and quality grew and grew over the three movements titled, “Clouds”, “River” and “Ocean”. It was clear to see why this won first prize.

After the interval, a piece from the widely recognised and leading Australian guitarist and composer Richard Charlton, which was titled “Shorelines”, had a more traditional format of fast, slow, fast. Over the three parts, the music just got better and better. Charlton’s clear, effective and beautiful tonal writing shows just how much contemporary Australian music has moved on from atonalism and serialism, and how much more accessible it is because of that. This was the most lyrical and interesting piece of the night.

The late Australian composer and classical guitarist Philip Houghton’s piece titled “In Amber” was the final piece. A musically diverse three-movement work that expresses perhaps some of the most interesting ideas ever to be put into music. Houghton drew inspiration from fossils suspended in amber stone for this work. The music was equally interesting and varied.

Throughout the concert, Acacia Quartet performed so well that at times they seem like only one instrument, such is their clarity and unison. The colours they bring out of music ranges from deathly quiet to intensely dynamic. It’s always such a pleasure listening to them.

Matt Withers is not only a musician who has a perfect alignment with his instrument; he rarely needs to look at his fingering while producing music of style and substance. He is also a charming and engaging host who is fast becoming one of Australia’s smartest entrepreneurs.


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