THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Friday September 10, 2021
Part of the current Brisbane Festival, this remarkable program demonstrated once again how fortune slips and slides around this continent with irresponsible abandon. Most of us have given up trying to keep a mental grip on which performers are where and what the prospects are of scheduled events going ahead; you just take what you can get and are grateful. Thanks to the premier of Queensland’s desire to keep her state out of lockdown as long as possible (even with the delta virus knocking at our south-eastern portal), much of what is promised here comes to fruition. Unlike what is going on in the southern states where compromise and replacements/deferrals are the new order, Brisbane regularly gets to go to the theatre big-time; for instance, on this Camerata night, a musical was playing in the Lyric Theatre and something else was happening in the Playhouse (I know, because the code-inspectors were on duty at the foot of the staircase). Mind you, at Southbank on Friday evening, everyone inside or out was masked, whether they needed to be or not – such a biddable population.
Brendan Joyce and his 17 string players – 4 firsts, 4 seconds, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double basses – warmed up with Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia in B minor which enjoyed an enthusiastic run-through, its Allegro exposition repeated and enough energy in the communal tank for a hefty accelerando at the piu presto from bar 352 to the end. Mind you, the actual sound definition proved not as crisp as you get in recorded readings of this work, but Camerata has to cope with the acoustic boom in QPAC’s large hall. Nevertheless, you found a pleasing attention to phrasing in a score that plays its Sturm-und-Drang cards with a tight fist, the energy contained if not constrained.
Joyce then took the solo line in Vaughan Williams‘ The Lark Ascending. He brought in the accepted number for a chamber performance – single woodwind and a horn, with one of the front desk violins doing the triangle tinkles that start four bars before Letter M and last just a few bars after Letter P in the old OUP score (actually, this instrument’s pitch was questionable [aren’t they all?]: the composer notates it as a treble clef B but overtones cruelled that likelihood). More importantly, we heard only part of the piece; Joyce and his forces stopped just before the Allegretto molto tranquillo at Letter R; at least, I think so. At all events, the piece took up from this break at the end of the night to round out a large-scale avian experience.
This was Lembit Beecher‘s composition that gave this particular event its title. Based on a lengthy poem by the Sufi Attar of Nishapur, the work concerns a quest by the world’s birds for their leader, who turns out to be themselves but, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, the covey has to overcome tests in the form of seven valleys before their self-apotheosis. American illustrator Peter Sis contributed the visual element to support this occasion – pictures of various birds, the valleys, and the climactic confrontation with the Mountain of Kaf and self-awareness. As well, he also provided the translation articulated by Brisbane actor and singer Liz Buchanan which introduced the music and followed Movement 1, but then split up the other two movements (which are to be played without a pause, if the composer is any guide). As well, I didn’t have access to a full program but it looked to me as if the first violins were down by a member, according to Beecher’s original requirements.
I’ve nothing to offer about the poetry reading by Buchanan. It was obviously a selection from the original which is packed with allegorical stories and sidelines to illustrate various morals that the central character, the hoopoe bird, inflicts on his swiftly diminishing flock. Beecher starts his score with bird imitations: high brief glissandi and whips of sound, all seemingly individual and as aleatoric in effect as you’d like. The narrative itself probably begins with low pedal notes/chords although the bird imitations last for a considerable time – long enough to convince you that you’re in mid-conference. Just when you wonder if there are any more strings to these bows, the movement becomes concerted and people tend to move in blocks before we are returned to the original chirps.
A poetic interlude as Buchanan outlined the progress across the seven valleys, and we are on to Movement 2 Part A. This has a far more savage ambience. You can still find traces of avian activity but the journey has turned grim; well, it would with so many travellers dying off or leaving the caravan. Beecher inserts fraught unison onslaughts and insistent rhythmic motives that suggest a sort of homophony, albeit a discordant one. You had to admire the Cameratas’ industriousness, particularly in sustaining clouds of fabric with ideal ensemble. But all intensity has to end somewhere and this section concluded with many of the players using sandpaper to generate a gentle stridulating effect as the notated material ceased for the final recitation.
Buchanan gave Sis’s conclusion to the quest for Simorgh and we came to Movement 2 Part B – or what I assume was Movement 3. This proved memorable for a plangent segment involving three violins and one cello, swerving into a series of slow chords in a high register and a final chord that wasn’t quite as uniform as expected; but then, that could have been what the composer wanted. It brought to an end a work which left little in the memory, possibly because of the visual distraction although, after the bird drawings, nothing else in Sis’s pictorial catalogue struck me as mildly interesting. Further, Buchanan’s introduction and interpolations tended to reduce the poet’s remarkable verses to a tale redolent of the nursery, undercutting the sophistication to be gleaned from even a superficial reading of the original.
Then we were back with Vaughan Williams with Joyce continuing an interpretation that, even split as it was, I found most impressive, with only a slight waver early in the piece’s first cadenza. While the solo line delighted for its lack of affectation and its fidelity, the supporting forces also deserved credit, coping well without a conductor, in particular the wind quintet who made only one scatter-gun block entry, possibly at the a tempo after the soloist’s first flight of double-stops after Letter S. As well, the Camerata strings showed an admirable sympathy with the piece, excellent in pursuing the ebb and flow of the longer bursts of tutti and pitching their responses to congruent effect in the colla parte bars.
Would we have enjoyed Beecher’s work more if we’d experienced it in isolation – without interpolated text and without the paintings? Hard to say. Would the audience have reacted with such enthusiasm if the score had not been bookended by the great English composer’s evocative gem, Joyce’s concluding solo a model of restraint and faultless pitching, right to that last splendidly elongated falling-third interval? Maybe; having listened to a ‘straight’ reading from the work’s commissioners, A Far Cry, I have to wonder.
Finally, the new Camerata pre-performance explanatory process is to hand out a sheet with basic performance details, referring patrons to a QR code at the bottom for access to the full program. Which is, of course, a sign of the times, reminiscent of having to scan yourself into every public building you enter. I’ve tried to access the document but something is lacking in both phones I employed, let alone the myriad QR ingress platforms that now sit in my apps stores. I assume that more specific information is to be found at this online repository; as the Gershwin brothers sang, but not for me.