WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Thursday November 28
It’s hard to avoid comparisons, especially when you’re finding your feet in a new place. This was my first experience of Camerata, Brisbane’s leading chamber orchestra and a formidable part of the city’s/state’s musical life. Naturally enough, similarities sprang up uninvited between William Hennessy’s Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Brendan Joyce’s 18-strong string ensemble. It wasn’t stretching too far to think also of Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra even if the Sydney group outclasses everything else in the country for its inbuilt energy, flair and large number of patrons that have secured economic stability for the organization.
However, this wasn’t the most suitable of demonstrations on which to make any informed judgements about the Cameratas’ ability level. Just like the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra when collaborating with Circa, these musicians were integral but secondary components in this program’s development. Front place was taken by two actors, Tama Matheson and Brett Brown, who played Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson respectively, charting the poets’ lives and literary careers with excellent skill, cherry-picking key stages in the men’s lives to address, using their actual words where possible, as well as digestible slabs of their verses. But, apart from the dialogue taking place almost continuously front-of-stage, the actual music that Camerata had to deal with was not calculated to draw attention to the group’s operating skills, although the various excerpts performed gave no cause for concern and some solos were excellently carried off.
As an entertainment form, When the World Was Wide would probably fall into a performance category along the lines of ‘dialogue with musical accompaniment’. At some points, the actors simply spoke over the music reminiscent of a Lelio-style melologue. Every so often, the voices would fall silent and the musicians had a short passage of undiluted exposure. Brown sang two Lawson settings – Faces in the Street and The Shame of Going Back – by John Thom, the first showing that Andrew Lloyd Webber has not lived in vain, the second oddly set to a habanera rhythm; still, the composer revealed a healthy degree of empathy with the poet’s hectoring stanzas. Somewhere in the mix, Brown was also prevailed upon to dance – one of the less successful passages in the night’s action.
As realizations of the poets’ characters, you would be captious to find errors or omissions. Matheson had the unenviable task of playing Lawson’s rapid fall into life-long alcoholism and poverty; my paternal grandfather told the family of seeing the writer falling over in the streets of North Sydney – public witness to a terrible waste of talent, here shown to be mainly self-inflicted. Brown had it somewhat easier as the gentlemanly Paterson who, by comparison with his Bulletin colleague, led a charmed life. The interplay between both impressed most for its accuracy in the depiction of the Bulletin Debate where both men gave their conflicting views of outback life, but the action took a rather mawkish turn at the night’s end when the poets moved into a sentimental tableau in which they united in extolling ‘the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.’
Matheson and Brown came on stage well before the audience arrived and settled; the Camerata players then drifted on individually to perform what I think was John Rodgers’ Carolling: a semi-aleatoric sequence in which short scraps and scrapes mimicked the sounds of bush birds; Messiaen, this was not. But the soundscape set an aural scene for the country life that both Lawson and Paterson endured or enjoyed in their young years.
The next music heard was Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, originally the final movement of the Sydney composer’s String Quartet No. 2 and an early example of Meale’s famous turn-about of 1979/80 when he threw off the constraints of modernism and assumed the mantle of a conservative. In the progress of this theatrical exercise, Meale’s piece emerged at various stages, fittingly as an accompaniment to the final scene of transcendent fusion: an effective nocturne for a sentimental fade-to-black. In fact, the first use of the piece was most welcome for the chance it gave to hear Joyce playing a splendid solo line, effective for its restraint and infusing this benign if predictable score with a healthy dose of sublimated lyricism.
During the central part of the night, I tried to notate what further items the Camerata musicians gave us by way of punctuation. We heard a scrap from Grieg’s Holberg Suite – the energetic Praeludium that stopped just as it was getting under way properly; pages from Sculthorpe’s Third Sonata for Strings and his hybrid Port Essington, both of them appearing to emerge at various stages like the Cantilena; the opening four bars to May Brahe’s Bless This House, repeated more softly each time to underline the scene where Lawson lost his hearing; and the Hoedown from Copland’s Rodeo ballet to illustrate a moment of exuberance from Paterson, although how this famous sample of Americana connected with the Australian poet I cannot fathom.
Listed in the program as part of the evening’s musical material, Cameron Patrick’s Impressions of Erin escaped me, unless it was the background to a scene where Paterson called a horse race. As for the rest, a stand-out moment came in a luminous solo from Thomas Chawner, violist with the Orava Quartet whose members are Camerata’s Artists-in-Residence. But the main impressions from a night that comprised shreds and patches was the coherence of Camerata’s essays with a unanimity of attack from all quarters, plenty of body from the violas and the provision of a solid, unassuming bass line.
At the end of its 70 minutes or so, this enterprise made a positive impression as a convincing fusion, albeit a lop-sided one. If attention necessarily focused on the Matheson/Brown partnership, Camerata fitted into the action without fuss. While you could cavil at some of the musical choices – why that Hoedown instead of a Grainger romp – the ensemble’s responsiveness showed consistency of timbre and care for detail; impressive from a body that had played this program only once before, in Toowoomba two days previously. A better chance to hear the orchestra at its work in unadulterated circumstances comes on April 2 next year in a program that begins with the Grosse Fuge and ends with the 2013 song-cycle Compassion, a collaboration between Lior and Nigel Westlake.