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Nigel Butterley is one of those archetypal composers whom everyone knows and whose influence is far-reaching, and yet most of his music remains rarely performed. There are works which are well-known, such as Spell of Creation, Laudes, The White-throated Warbler and The Owl, but rarely is Butterley the centre around which a festival is constructed. In celebration of his 70th birthday such an event occurred in the form of 3 concerts, 2 of which are reviewed here.

The Song Company presented the a capella concert Nigel and Hildegard in which pieces by Butterley were performed alongside those of Hildegard von Bingen and Sofia Gubaidulina, the great Russian composer of Tartar origins, born in 1931. For a number of reasons one has to be careful in devising this type of concert: will the programme feel balanced? How well will the early works sit alongside the recent? And, most importantly, do the pieces complement each other, helping the audience to gain a greater understanding of both? The Song Company is to be commended on all counts. As is Elliot Gyger who acted as the weekend’s curator, and whose programme notes were filled with informative observations.

In fact, the combination of repertoire and the order in which they were presented could not have been more enlightening. The programme opened with Butterly’s Flower in the crannied wall, which pairs 2 texts, one by Tennyson, the other from the antiphon for Lauds, Trinity Sunday. The first focuses on a little flower plucked from a wall and so contemplates the relative positions of ‘Man’ and ‘God.’ In this poem, the flower is a single object through which a series of binaries is held: the sacred and the secular, understanding and confusion, clarity and ambiguity, nature and human construction. These ideas, which have occupied Butterly’s mind throughout his career, were present in each piece. Butterley’s setting of this text is profound and the work’s length just right. Soft and gentle, yet detailed and intense, the voices singing Tennyson’s words were active and descriptive in contrast to the static lower lines of the antiphon, the 2 threads contrapuntally woven together. In any other part of the programme this piece would have been overwhelmed, but it was given the space it needed at the very start.

The second piece, Hildegard’s O Virtus Sapientiae, consisted of 2 voices: Jenny Duck-Chong who droned with perfect intonation and clarity, and Ruth Kilpatrick who carried the agile melody. The same binaries from the first piece were present here, albeit in simplified form. Duck-Chong returned later in the concert for Gubaidulina’s Aus den Visionen der Hildegard von Bingen, another of the evening’s highlights. This difficult piece stretches the singer’s range as it moves without rest from highest to lowest registers. If this isn’t difficult enough, there are large dynamic contrasts and changes of timbre. The counterpoint created is like that found in Bach’s works for solo violin which imply contemporaneous lines through registral disjuncture.

Butterley’s Paradise Unseen made much of different configurations of register. Written in 2001 for The Song Company, it exploited the virtuosic versatility of the performers. One rarely encounters an ensemble which can vary its sound so much. Each word was loaded with meaning through Butterley’s extravagant use of intertwining lines. He has an ability to construct long phrases, each of which, like the flower in the first piece, is formed from multiple perspectives of a single evocative image. And like the other piece written for the Company (and which closed the concert), There Came a Wind like a Bugle, the amount of information with which the audience is presented is immense, though the music remains luminous.

The second concert of the day was given by The Seymour Group. The nature/human construction theme from the previous concert continued with Butterley’s Of Wood and The Owl, circumjacent to the Australian première of Gyger’s Polishing Firewood.

Adrian Wallis was excellent in the cello solo Of Wood. His performance was dramatic, detailed and clear (and very different to last year’s wonderfully noisy performance of the Berio ‘cello sequenza’). This piece alternates between soft, ethereal, flickering sounds and loud outbursts. The 2 are always in tension, with strident gestures reclaimed by profound introspective passages—the latter ultimately prevailing.

Gyger’s new work also featured the cello within a mixed ensemble (flutes, clarinets, violin, viola, piano and percussion). Following Butterley’s lead, Gyger ventures into the “paradoxical combination of delicacy and violence” through 4 movements—“Burnt”, “Polishing”, “Burning” and “Polished.” His sound world explores the images of which the movement titles are evocative. For example, “Burnt” is characterised by small, soft, sparse, fragmented notes scattered around the ensemble and which, in “Polishing”, take on longer, more legato lines as the interconnection between instruments grow and gestures cohere. Register is important for this piece too, though more for the way that it alters the colours created in the combining sonorities. This is a difficult piece precisely performed (with Geoffrey Gartner on cello and Timothy Constable on percussion deserving special acclaim). Like everything else in the programme, Polishing Firewood was carefully positioned and its confident exhuberance prepared for The Owl with its defined central character.

Whilst The Owl is an impressive, considered and crafted piece, it is Butterley’s smaller works for which I have renewed appreciation. There is a distinctiveness about the way that he writes (his meaningful use of register and of counterpoint, the careful way he sets texts, his creative and thoughtful approach to all his music) which is infrequently found in others and which was well highlighted in these 2 concerts. Hopefully these birthday celebrations will prompt a renewed appreciation of Nigel Butterley’s music.


Nigel Butterley 70th Birthday Festival, The Song Company, Nigel and Hildegard, conductor Roland Peelman, singers Clive Birch, Richard Black, Mark Donnelly, Jenny Duck-Chong, Ruth Kilpatrick, Nicole Smeulders, Nicole Thomson, Dan Walker; The Seymour Group, conductor Marshall McGuire, performers Jennifer Barnes, Christine Draeger, Margery Smith, Jemima Littlemore, Thomas Talmacs, Geoffery Gartner, Adrian Wallis, Bernadette Balkus, Timothy Constable; Music Workshop, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sept 4, 2005

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 14

© Michael Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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