Review / ‘Sapphire’ shines like a gemstone

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Artistic director Geoff Grey. Photo by Peter Hislop
AMERICAN composers featured in the concert “Sapphire” by the Canberra Wind Symphony, and for the most, the band and the music shone like a gemstone.

In this “Colour Concert” series, artistic director and chief conductor Geoff Grey offered two Capital Region premieres and an Australian premiere.

Beginning with the dazzling work of H. Owen Reed’s “La Fiesta Mexicana” (1954), its brilliant and muted tones began with tubular bells, calling French horns, a thumping bass drum, the tapping of a snare drum and then the full wind orchestra, including one double bass to play this complex and even perplexing work.

It’s hard to describe the intricate rhythms and narrative style of the music, as there was so much going on, this theatrical, epic and grand masterwork sort of had it all, and the players gave their all in performing it.

John Mackey’s (not the Canberra saxophonist) “Hymn to a Blue Hour” (2010) was a moody work, which exposed how problematic it is to write and play for this type of orchestration. Blending tones and getting them right is a tricky task for the composer and for the players with this style of music. Getting a good balance was not easy, there were out of tunes moments, but without seeing the score it’s hard to say what was the correct sound.

That said, it was an atmospheric piece full of evocative tones with many warm and room filling crescendos creating a feeling of tenderness and subtlety.

Geoff Grey, the conductor who kept the audience amused by his blue socks with ducks on them, and his knowledge of the works, gave insights into each piece, which I imagine most had never heard, certainly, this reviewer had never heard any of the works.

After the interval came “Sounds, Shapes and Symbols” (1977) by Leslie Bassett. This was an Australian premiere even though it’s over 40 years old. Following its title, this “new music” had a diverse and at times sparkling orchestration. It bordered on atonality but never actually went there. It didn’t have melody, but it was clear and surprisingly there was not a lot of effects used as there is in many atonal works.

Over its four movements, the last stood out with the brightest colours and the most interesting arrangement, especially when the music swam between sections in an oscillating manner creating a magical effect. The Canberra Wind Symphony handled this with great authority, and they made it come together with clear and definite tones.

David Maslanka’s (2013) “Requiem”, began sounding like Beethoven’s moonlight sonata. This soft and suggestive work had a wonderful simple melody that at times bounced between the piccolo and French horns. It included some blowing through the instruments without playing a note and that created a startling effective accompaniment to the music, like the sound of the ocean.

Towards the end, it rose to a full volume fortissimo and with all five percussionists hammering away it almost took people out of their seats. Then over several minutes, it died away to the softest ending.

To finish, an exciting work titled “Blue Shades” (1997) by Frank Ticheli. This was a great way to end the concert with this jazzy and contemporary work that was played with enthusiasm and daring.

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