Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Southern Sky" - The Griffyn Ensemble - Mt Stromlo Observatory, 15 November 2013 - Review by Clinton White

Griffyn Ensemble a tour-de-force through the universe

Sitting in an open, burnt-out telescope dome on a cloudy, rather cool and breezy night did not deter the anticipation of the suitably-dressed capacity audience or the enthusiasm of the six members of The Griffyn Ensemble for their performance of "Southern Sky" by Estonian composer, Urmas Sisask.

Director, Michael Sollis, assured the audience he had a Plan B if rain fell, but the instruments would take priority.  Fair enough, too.  Thankfully, the rain didn't come, apart from a couple of half-hearted spits here and there, so we were able to enjoy uninterrupted the 90-minute, interval-free performance in the rather spooky, ethereal surrounds.

Estonian House had commissioned "Southern Sky", sending Sisask to Australia in the mid-90s to visit observatories and experience Aboriginal rituals.  He was particularly taken with Stromlo and the prominence of bushfire in Aboriginal mythology.  He dedicated a performance of the work in Estonia in 2003 to the people of Canberra - a week before the devastating fires of January 18!

The work is presented in nine sections, all but one carrying at least two movements each.  Each movement is named after a feature of the night sky - a constellation, galaxy, cluster or even a single star.  And each carries a sub-title, some of which seem almost incongruous to the title.  A bonus - a big one, too - was the presence of astronomy practitioner and personality Fred Watson, who introduced each section and told us about the features on whose music we were about to hear.  He was wonderfully laid-back, entertaining and informative.

The music took us to all those far-away places, too.  Sometimes there was a subtle hint of Star Trek themes, especially from Wyana O'Keefe on the vibraphone.  Wyana, playing variously the vibraphone and the glockenspiel, was busy throughout, but the sounds she created, sometimes with a violin bow, were serene and expressive, weaving in and out of the lead instruments and occasionally taking the lead herself.

The consummate harpist, Meriel Owen, showed unfaltering sensitivity to the music and the others in the group.  Her interplay with Sollis in particular, when he played the mandolin or the guitar, was seemless.  There were times when there was an imperceptible transition from one to the other.  Meriel was entirely at one with her instrument, the music and her fellow musicians.

The performances of Matthew O'Keefe (clarinets) and Kiri Sollis (flutes and recorder) were totally enthralling.  There was a host of joyous rhythms, playful musical debates and echoes, and moments of sombre wistfulness.  They created musical moods, places and euphemisms with ease.  How captivating were their contributions.  O'Keefe even brought us back to earth occasionally with a masterly digeridoo dog bark or two on the bass clarinet.  There was plenty of circular breathing required from him during the whole performance, too!

The role of soprano, Susan Ellis, was less on lyrics and more on sounds - those eerie sounds that outer space conjures up in our imagination.  The clarity of her tone and her control of the sounds was quite extraordinary; it was the stuff of raised hairs on the back of the neck.  Susan's interpretation of the vocal part in the last movement in particular, sub-titled "Fading into Eternity", was especially haunting, gradually decreasing the volume until finally, muting her mouth with her hands, her voice was faint and distant, fading, as the movement required, into eternity.

Michael Sollis' arrangement of "Southern Sky", performed under his direction in the burnt-out ruins at Stromlo, was a tour-de-force.  What a master he is and what a giant he has become in Canberra's music scene.

A sustained applause seemed almost to get the better of this fine group of musicians, but it did draw an encore: a humorous bluesy song by Fred Watson on subjects dear to his heart, and not limited to just astronomy.  Sollis and Matthew O'Keefe provided some nice, understated improvised accompaniment.

Then, ever the promoter, Sollis spoke animatedly about The Griffyn Ensemble's 2014 season, titled "Fairy Tales".  It promises to be another year of innovative and daring music-making from this stand-out ensemble, challenging traditions and taking its audiences right outside their comfort zones, but, at the same time, appealing to all senses.  Check it out: