Day Eight: Friday May 8

A musical pilgrimage and Barbara Blackman’s Festival Blessing

The gods smiled on us yesterday, granting us a perfect Canberra autumn day for the musical pilgrimage from a great institution, the National Library of Australia, through Reconciliation Place to the High Court. Roland Peelman has a sharp sense of the theatrical: he sees a performance space where ordinary mortals see the foyer you walk through to reach the café. In the Sculthorpe piece, Leanne Sullivan’s trumpet rang out splendidly from the second floor balcony of the National Library. I believe, however, that it was Chris Latham, the previous artistic director, who came up with the idea of using the trench-like Commonwealth Place Corridor for a performance. Another musical Chris, Creative Fellow at the NLA Chris Williams, unearthed a composition from among Nigel Butterley’s papers and manuscripts – the beginning of an unfinished opera written forty-five years earlier and forgotten by the composer. As a gift to Nigel Butterley on his eightieth birthday, Chris arranged the fragment, ‘the formlessness of cold’, for ensemble and singers from the Song Company. Nigel was in the audience yesterday, on his birthday, with fellow composers Andrew Ford and Martin Wesley-Smith, to hear the forgotten fragment played for the first time. Baritone David Greco was back again, I’m delighted to say, in Andrew Ford’s moving A Pitch Dark Night, a setting of words from Arthur Taylor’s Gallipoli diary and also a world première. It really seemed to matter that no word was lost.

As we left the library, we were showered with bright, cascading sound. On the library’s outside balcony, mostly hidden except for their instruments, were two trombonists, Nigel Croker and Roslyn Jorgensen. The brass were having their day. Then we discovered a use for public art: Claire Edwardes and Bree van Reyk were tapping their mallets on sculpted iron in Reconciliation Place. And so to the trench for Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Appel interstellaire’, played by Gergely Màlyusz on French horn. No stars, only a corridor of intense blue sky above and a haunting sound. Alongside the National Portrait Gallery, the indefatigable percussionists were at it again, this time wandering with their gongs. Those two need a labyrinth to walk, I thought. Whatever your views on the High Court’s brutalist style of architecture, there is no denying that its interior is magnificent for the voice. The Song Company and the YAFF vocalists, theyoung singers who have joined them throughout the Festival, were grouped around the gallery, with Roland Peelman conducting from on high. After the ANAM String Quartet played Glass at ground level, the vast interior of the High Court reverberated with the sixteenth-century harmonies of Gabrieli’s ‘Omnes Gentes’. Heavenly.

“We are all blessed to be around Barbara Blackman,” said composer Andrew Ford in his introduction to Concert 19, Barbara Blackman’s Festival Blessing: Being and Time. Indeed, all of us who love music are in her debt, for the Canberra International Music Festival would not be where it is today without her very generous patronage and support. The conversation about art and music, which Andrew Ford conducted with painter Imants Tillers and composer Rosalind Page, made much of the way one art form can influence another. Andrew said that in his experience, artists want to be some other kind of artist. He would rather be a poet, for instance, which I think is quite funny, because I’m married to a poet called Andrew who would rather like to be a composer. Imants Tillers spoke about his Latvian heritage and how it has influenced his work, especially the Diaspora series. Three paintings in that series – Paradiso, Tabula Rasa, Lacrimae rerum – inspired Rosalind Page to compose her three Being and Time pieces. She described looking at Imants Tillers’ ‘layered, epic’ paintings and hearing music. The composer and the painter also share an interest in Heidegger and his notions of authenticity. The Being and Time pieces were performed, in reverse chronological order, with the relevant painting projected on a large screen. The musicans – pianist Gabi Sultana, clarinettist Jason Noble, cellist Geoffrey Gartner – did a fine job drawing the audience in with these rarefied, introspective, improvisatory soundscapes.   

Concert 18 was supported by Margaret and Peter Janssen, and Concert 10 by Christine Goode. Paradiso was commissioned by Dr Arn Sproggis and Dr Margot Woods for CIMF 2015. It is dedicated to Dr Sproggis’s Latvian mother and to the memory of his Latvian father.

– Diana Brown

PS: Those who missed Julie Hotchin's pre-concert talk on Hildegard of Bingen and the Order of Virtues can now download the text of her talk from here.