Birdsong from the North

ALAN HOLLEY      ***

Australian Voices

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 5, 2015

This series – a collaboration between the Recital Centre and the Australian National Academy of Music –  has tended to air music by composers whose names are familiar or well-established.  While Sydney-based Alan Holley is verging on the age requirement for a senior Australian creative figure, his music has rarely travelled to Melbourne; at least, in my experience.  All the more welcome, then, that Thursday evening gave an audience of enthusiasts the chance to hear a variety of works covering Holley’s activity over the past eleven years.

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Thanks to the expertise of a chain of talented young ANAM musicians and the committed direction of curator/trumpeter David Elton, we experienced two of Holley’s larger-framed constructs, interspersed with some solos from Elton alongside a few short pieces that served to illustrate the writer’s skill in finding congenial frames of operation for wind and brass instruments in particular.  Canzona for Ligeti begins with an off-stage horn solo – and, no matter what you do, the shade of Britten’s Serenade casts a long shadow – before a short and dynamic tribute written on the Hungarian composer’s death.  Clear in its linear interplay and texturally warm and spiky in turn, this set a fairly high standard of expectation for the rest of the night’s content.

Comprising a mixed nonet – five strings, three wind, horn – loaded with dream juxtaposes musical images of Australia’s first white settlers with the country’s indigenous peoples, the intellectual/emotional landscapes of both races spelled out in a score notable for some eloquent bass clarinet contributions from Luke Carbon.  Here again, Holley employed a varied sound palette, best exemplified by some striking low wind textures supporting a reticent string group.

Elton himself performed Ornithologia, splitting its two parts (in reverse order) at either end of a piano trio, the estuaries of time, which, like the nonet, marked a new e. e. cummings period in the composer’s style of nomenclature.   The trumpet solo gave the first overt reference to Holley’s preoccupation with birdsong, an influence that colours his work – well, the instances we heard here – and Elton’s eloquent performance gave an object lesson in rapidity of articulation as well as demonstrating an unshakable grip on the piece’s sequence of abrupt sonic explosions.

As for the birds, Holley uses a limited and local number of them.  There are no Messiaen-like ornate chromatically complex flurries; rather more suggestions than direct imitation although, to be even-handed, a world of difference in intention lies between the Calling section of Ornithologia and the French composer’s obsessively detailed Oiseaux exotiques.  Holley, unlike Messiaen, presents as more inclined to use what is available rather than to search out the more arcane sounds of rarer species.  Certainly, birdsong adds to the colour, the context even of Holley’s works’ progress, but its use  is not all-engrossing for the listener.

The piano trio opens with long solos for two of the participants; when the instruments coalesce, your attention tends to wander as the contrapuntal interplay is less engaging than Holley’s exploration of individual lines; as a result, I tended to focus on Iona Allan’s violin or Alexandra Patridge’s cello as distinct threads rather than looking for the score’s ensemble tension.  In this program’s context, the estuaries of time opened bravely enough but wore out their welcome, the pools they led to rather brackish despite the interpreters’ clear dedication to the task.

The last work of the night, The Winged Viola, was the earliest written, in 2004.  Soloist Gregory Daniel met its challenges with fine equanimity, his line piercingly clean in the Salon’ close situation.  Like the trio, this is a substantial work and deserved earlier placement; as it was, the lyrical curves and sprightly moments of technical brilliance impressed for their clarity, although the later-written scores already heard held more polished, more tautly enunciated content.  Less importantly, this chamber concerto came onto the scene well after the scheduled finishing time of the recital; enervating for those of us with a commitment later yesterday evening.