Happy 80th, Nigel

FROM SORROWING EARTH      ***

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank

October 31

This ambitious concert’s title refers to Nigel Butterley’s 1991 score, a kind of symphony in one movement which can be read as a lengthy meditation on the planet’s destruction or in even more concrete terms as an active threnody on environmental ruin, albeit a plaint where the listener is eventually offered some grounds for optimism.

Nigel Butterley (image: LinkedIn)

In fact, this night celebrated Butterley’s 80th birthday, which actually took place in May this year. Currently, the octogenarian is one of the few survivors of that optimistic period in Australian composition history when we attempted to catch up with the rest of the world after years of rehashing what passed for modern 50 years before.  Butterley’s Sydney-based contemporaries Richard Meale and Peter Sculthorpe  have left the scene, their direct descendant David Ahern preceding them by several years.

From that 1960s period of ferment, apart from Ross Edwards,  Butterley’s remaining peers seem to be Melbourne residents, notably George Dreyfus, seven years his senior, and Helen Gifford; both are still productive, if relics of an active era here that mirrored Sydney’s world and included George Tibbits, Felix Werder and Keith Humble. Agreed, the national musical history doesn’t start and end with these composers but their impact was considerable and more encouraged by the ABC and other concert-promoting bodies than seems to be the case today.  Certainly, their premieres were more keenly anticipated and more widely discussed than similar events in these piping times of benign indifference and undiscriminating tolerance.

Yesterday’s event, a partnership between Arcko Symphonic and ABC Classic FM, served a higher purpose than just recycling scraps from Butterley’s oeuvre.  Alongside an audition of In the Head the Fire, a still-gripping aural composite that won the 1966 Prix Italia, and the night’s-title symphony, the program saw the premiere of From Joyous Leaves, a freshly minted piano concerto by Elliott Gyger, this work taking its framework from Butterley’s 1981 piano solo, Uttering Joyous Leaves.

Zubin Kanga took us into this mesh gradually with an authoritative account of the short solo, idiosyncratic in its vocabulary but impressive for its bursts of deft spikiness; a complex construct but packed with devices and flourishes that document yet again the composer’s brilliant writing for keyboard. Later, in Gyger’s concerto, Kanga gave a gritty demonstration of unflinching insight, negotiating page after page of restless, demanding action.  After the score’s opening statement for three violas, the pianist entered the work’s scheme and remained a constant presence for a remarkably long time.

One of the concerto’s features is the use of a prepared piano, bringing up memories of Butterley’s own performances of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes.  The work moves with restless impetus and, using a chamber orchestra of woodwind sextet, brass quartet, two percussion with an often-near-inaudible celeste, and 13 strings, you are confronted with a succession of calculatedly juxtaposed colours, even from the piano which oscillates between normal sounds and the gamelan-like texture of the prepared strings.  A great deal is given to the listener in aural information and, before the tutti which disrupts the soloist’s urgent declamations, the concerto comes close to overload.

I’m not sure that simply playing the recorded performance of In the Head the Fire worked as a concert-going experience.  Yes, it was rewarding to hear the work in well-amplified conditions but these days most of us can achieve pretty much the same impact in our own homes.  Still, what else can you do with a work that was  recorded in different sites, its effect dependent on superimposed tracks and some sonic distortion?  Or perhaps it simply seemed out of place in the concert’s live performance context.

The symphony showed the extended Arcko forces in good form, director Timothy Phillips giving the work’s long paragraphs plenty of breadth.  For much of its length, From Sorrowing Earth moves forward steadily, but several agitated moments interrupt its measured progress; both wind and brass maintained an evenness and cohesion of ensemble that infused these livelier moments with real bite.   In the close acoustic of the Iwaki Auditorium, the general balance would have gained from greater string numbers, particularly both groups of violins which were liable to disappear in ardent full-orchestra pages.

Suggestive of the plainchant soaring over the last movement of Laudes, Butterley’s seminal octet and first major success which exposed many of us to his individual voice, the symphony eventually reaches a point of concord where the strife and stridency are replaced by block chords moving in parallel: a calm processional, an organum for the late 20th century.

For some of us, this would have been the first time we were hearing this striking and concentrated score live; the only recorded performance I can trace was made by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Isaiah Jackson in September 1992.  Its reappearance many years later, delivered with exemplary dedication by the Arcko players, must have pleased its creator.  For Butterley’s admirers, this all-too-short tour d’horizon served to reinforce our admiration and affection for a personable, ever-rewarding creative voice: a timely tribute to his intellectual integrity in furthering the development of Australia’s musical progress.