A Cunning Blog

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The Chancellor’s Garden

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0806129166-sculpture-in-the-parkThe Sydney Conservatorium of Music Symphony Orchestra raised the roof of the Verbrugghen Hall last night at their first concert of the year, the Chancellor’s Concert. Under the baton of Maestro Eduardo Diazmunoz they performed Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Gordon Jacob’s Flute Concerto (with soloist Breeanna Moore), alongside the world premiere of Olive Pink’s Garden by Anne Boyd AM.

Olive Pink’s Garden is scored for large orchestra and a concertante trio of alto flute, marimba and harp, so a huge range of tone colours to play with. Boyd also makes the canny decision to limit her harmonic material to a tower of fourths. I say ‘limit’ but, as she explains in her program note, the tower is tall enough to encompass the 12 pitches in the chromatic scale, and she uses them all, sometimes even in the form of a 12-tone row. Plenty of dissonance, then, plenty of harmonic scrunch, but judiciously orchestrated – the marimba and harp are crucial here, and the alto flute provides the horizontal line – so as never to slump into a muddy welter of sound. And this dissonance is balanced by a regular return to the aural comfort zone of the pentatonic scale, which somehow immediately evokes big landscapes and ancient refrains. It walks a tightrope between designed chaos and instinctive patterning. Like a garden in the desert.

Olive-Pink-PhotoSandwiched between the Boyd’s brand new work and Stravinsky’s brand old work, Gordon I’m-no-modernist Jacob’s Concerto for Flute sounded almost absurdly anodyne. Not that it was bad. Breeanna Moore was a fluent and occasionally brilliant soloist, and the Con’s string ensemble accompanied her with stylish delicacy. Compared to its punchy neighbours, however, the work seemed polite and pale.

The Rite of Spring is best heard live, and played by a top orchestra under a great conductor – the AWO and Zubin Mehta, for example. But failing that, your next best option is a youth orchestra. In fact, in some ways, the Con orchestra’s performance had a significant edge on the pro version as the young musicians experienced the jolts and rifts, the panic and disorientation, the bone-shaking layers of sound for the first time. They played as if their lives depended on it, fortissimos crowding off the stage like an angry mob, rhythmic passages electric with concentration, and consistently fine individual solos. A gripping crack at Stravinsky’s wild stomp.

An afterthought – listening to Olive Pink’s Garden, I was struck by how assured and coherent Boyd’s writing for orchestra is, and found myself wondering why I haven’t noticed before. The answer is, of course, that I’ve never heard any other orchestral works by her. After the performance I asked her about her other orchestral work and she gave that me I’m-trying-not-to-roll-my-eyes look before saying that there wasn’t much to hear, because very few women, and even fewer Australian women, enjoyed regular commissions. Black Sun, composed in 1989, remains her best-known work for orchestra.

It’s a shame and, more importantly, a missed opportunity, because the ways Boyd works with these thick slices of sound, the ways she organises her harmonic and melodic material, and the ideas she plays with are profoundly eloquent.

Another afterthought – if you’ve read this far, you could do me an immense favour by clicking here and reading about my book, Sanctuary, a pictorial history of Dartington International Summer School of Music. Yes, it’s another bloody crowd-funding project, but it’s also a fascinating story and a labour of love. If you click, I feel good. If you share the link on your preferred flavour of social media, with words of encouragement, I feel really good. If you pledge, you make me feel extra super very good, and you get to be part of making this book happen. Thanking you in advance.

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Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

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