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Ten Days on the Island

March 23 - April 1 2007

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entwined: music of the islands

keith gallasch

Keith Gallasch is the Managing Editor of RealTime.

The Hobart Chamber Orchestra and Tasmanian Chorale’s concert for Ten Days on the Island lovingly entwined the music of Britain’s Henry Purcell and Ralph Vaughan Williams with works by Tasmania’s Don Kay and Peter Sculthorpe in an engrossing program that for good reason felt more British than Australian. That’s largely because Kay’s Matthina in the Red Dress and Sculthorpe’s My Country Childhood, despite local references, evoke the pastoral tradition of British music (Delius, Bax et al) in the finely modulated long lines of their writing for violins and violas and the darker, often telling underpinnings from cellos and basses. The Kay is inspired by an 1842 portrait by Thomas Bock of a young Aboriginal girl in an elegant dress; the Sculthorpe ‘country’ is in part the Tasmania in which he grew up.

A copy of the Matthina portrait sits to once side of the orchestra in the Town Hall, the girl’s apparent serenity and the quiet directness of her gaze captured in the gentle lyricism of Kay’s composition. There’s nothing programmatic about the score, but there is a gradual if always subtle darkening of mood from the cellos, a few sudden silences, like a dance interrupted, and some later plucking and then firm bowing of the double basses (perhaps a moment of disquiet about what the composer sees in the portrait), ending softly and fading with just the slightest hint of discordance. It’s a work more about the viewer of the painting than its subject—there’s a certain elegiac quality although none of the melancholy of nostalgia.

The Four English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams are an acquired taste, but the Tasmanian Chorale under the direction of Stephanie Abercromby acquitted them with ease, attentive to the complex layerings with which Williams embroidered and sometimes laboured such simple songs. Their interest resides in part in juxtaposing them with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the first English opera, written some 200 years before the Vaughan Williams and presented in the second part of the concert.

Sculthorpe’s My Country Childhood proved a fine companion piece for the Kay composition, opening in a similar way in part one, Song of the Hills, with a fetching iterated melody and a slight darkening from beneath before a solo violin sings out above the rest. Part two, A Church Gathering, although warmly contrapuntal, evokes a sense of yearning and again the solo violin rises heavenwards. In part three, A Village Funeral, cellos and basses brood, the cello this time dominant in a kind of keening followed by a surge of affecting anguish, heightened by the violins and concluding with diminishing cadences of the same hurt—death now almost accepted. Finally, in Song of the River rapid soft fiddling provides a sense of a speeding current over which run slower waters suggested by a melancholy cello before the whole speeds up in almost frantic ripplings—it’s a wonderful dance of a river as much as a song.

Conductor Myer Fredman paced Dido and Aeneas at the speed it warrants—brisk, allowing the spare drama to unfold without strain and for the listener to feel the considerable force of a string orchestra fattened out with harpsichord, an experience aided by the intimate, clean acoustic of Hobart’s Town Hall. The soloists were all in fine voice, Jane Edwards above all, her Dido heartfelt, unmelodramatic and the continuo playing (cello, Tony Morgan; harpsichord, Stephanie Abercromby) providing firm underpinning for the vocal action. The Tasmanian Chorale were allowed to display their full power and, in the sad final song, their capacity for nuance. This was not a period instrument presentation but the continuo playing and Fredman’s dance-like drive yielded the requisite crispness, elegance and passion.

Entwined was an unusual experience—a traversal of 300 years of music largely out of one tradition, moving broadly from the present to the past, and teasing out kinships between islands—sharing elegance, reflectiveness and a subtle dancerliness in these works. Then again, there was nothing like Sculthorpe’s Sun Music on the program to point to some palpable differences.

Hobart Chamber Orchestra, Tasmanian Chorale, Entwined, works by Don Kay, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Sculthorpe, Henry Purcell, conductor Myer Fredman; Hobart Town Hall, Ten Days on the Island, March 25

Keith Gallasch is the Managing Editor of RealTime.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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