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Introducing the Griffyn Ensemble

July 27, 2010
Griffin from Throne Room, Knossos

A painted Griffin, Knossos (Courtesy: Paginazero, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The Griffyn Ensemble is an exciting chamber music ensemble based right here in our (that is downunder’s) national capital. The ensemble is named, in a fun wordplay, after Walter Burley Griffin, Canberra’s designer, and the mythical beast (the griffin, gryffin, or gryphon).

The group  was founded in December 2006 and its members are mostly, I believe, graduates of the ANU’s School of Music. It has had various make-ups over time including violin, viola and cello, but it currently comprises:

  • Kiri Sollis – Flute
  • Matthew O’Keeffe – Clarinet
  • Carly Brown – Horn
  • Laura Tanata – Harp
  • Wyana Etherington – Percussion
  • Susan Ellis – Soprano
  • Michael Sollis – Musical director and composer

Fascinating line-up eh? And the result is that they play some rather fascinating music – which focuses on the 20th and 21st centuries. The music, for those of us who have not had a lot of exposure to more contemporary classical music, can be a little obscure. But that’s fine with me, because I like to be introduced to more modern works as well as hear the old favourites, just as I love to read classic novels alongside the latest literary release.

Tales from Heaven and Hell

We’ve heard members of the ensemble a couple of times before, but on Saturday night we went to a concert performed by the current full ensemble at the lovely, new-ish Belconnen Arts Centre. It was a challenging but also enthralling program*:

  • Madrigals Book III (1969), by George Crumb (Soprano, harp, percussion)
  • Perelandra Piccolo Concerto (2010), by Michael Sollis (the full ensemble, with Kiri Sollis featuring on piccolo)
  • A Dybbuk Suite (1995), by The Klezmatics (the full ensemble)
  • Good Night (1989), by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (Soprano, alto flute, harp, three tam tams)

I was intrigued by Crumb’s Madrigals which comprises three very short accompanied (though that word doesn’t do justice to the harp and percussion) vocal pieces of a style that was unlike anything I’ve heard before. The lyrics are drawn from Federico Garcia Lorca. All I can say is that it was a nicely controlled and expressive performance by the three musicians involved. Sollis’ Perelandra Piccolo Concerto is a 4-movement piece inspired by CS Lewis‘ novel Perelandra – and featured, of course, the piccolo. The novel, which I haven’t read, tells the story of Elwin Ransom, who is sent to Perelandra (Venus) to prevent the Fall of a new Adam and Eve. The piece includes spoken text, effectively read by soprano Ellis. I must say that the piccolo is not my favourite instrument – particularly as a major solo instrument – as I tend to like something a little more mellow (like, say, the alto-flute in the last piece) but Kiri Sollis (the composer’s wife) did play it with both verve and skill. All in all a work that made you think while entertaining you at the same time.

However, it was probably the second half of the concert that moved me the most. I think this is because the first half had a more intellectual appeal – my brain had to work to enjoy it – while the second half appealed more to the emotions. A Dybbuk Suite contains all that paradoxical joy and melancholy that you tend to find in klezmer music and I found my foot tapping at times. Lovely. Good Night, on the other hand, mostly comprises a mystical, moody dialogue between harp and alto-flute with some voice and percussion near the end. It was quite mesmerising: Kiri Sollis and Laura Tanata seemed perfectly attuned to each other and played the piece at a controlled and measured pace. It quietly but gorgeously concluded what was a truly delightful concert.

(*This is not a formal music review – that is not my skill as I’ve said before – but simply my lay music-goer’s response to the concert)

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 5:46 pm

    I like the inclusion of a harp…

    • July 27, 2010 7:15 pm

      Yes, I do too. There’s something about harps isn’t there. Flute and harp are a lovely combination too – I have a CD of Japanese melodies using flute and harp and it’s gorgeous.

      • July 28, 2010 9:58 am

        Out of curiosity: is it a koto, or a non-Japanese harp?

  2. July 28, 2010 3:38 pm

    No, DKS, not the koto but the normal harp. This is the CD – – though mine has a different cover. It’s Jean-Pierre Rampal and Lily Laskine (died 1988).

    • July 28, 2010 6:48 pm

      Excellent, thanks. I hadn’t heard of it, but those samples are nicely serene. I keep forgetting about harps, and then one of them heaves into view and I say to myself, “Oh, yah, that’s right, I like those things.” The last time I came across a harp was, I think, on the Rough Guide to Scottish Folk, and Wendy Stewart, a terrific folk harpist, was doing interesting things with Gary West, who was on pipes. A strange combination (one instrument all-sweet, the other all-sour, and then they threw in a snare drum, because everybody’s bagpipe-harp combo needs a snare drum), but they made it work.

  3. July 28, 2010 5:08 pm

    Sounds a very pleasant evening. I’m familiar with klezmer music being a bit of a squeezbox struggler myself. Gorecki – I only know his major works, not this one. Nice review

    • July 28, 2010 7:16 pm

      Tom: Thanks … I think it’s an example of how to do a music review without really doing a music review!

      Tom and DKS: My introduction to klezmer has been through the National Folk Festival primarily – where you get to hear the odd squeezebox and also a range of folk harps. Every year at the festival we seen to come up against yet another instrument that we hadn’t heard of before plus, of course, the old favourites.

      DKS: You may have missed my review of The Harp Consort a couple of months ago. Just in case you are interested, here’s a link: As you have probably gathered, I like those things too!

      • July 29, 2010 9:52 am

        I tried looking them (the Consort) up on youtube, but there’s more footage of a woman talking about the Consort than the Consort itself. Do you listen to koras much? I think you’d like them, if you don’t already.

  4. July 29, 2010 10:25 am

    DKS…I’m sorry you didn’t find much of them playing. I guess if you couldn’t find better I wouldn’t do better. No, I don’t listen to koras much, though have seen them at the folk festival. I do like them – tend to like a lot of the “folk-y” string instruments but it’s hard to hear them except in specialist venues isn’t it? (Must admit I had to look kora up as I tend to forget the names of a lot of the instruments I’ve heard OR remember the name and forget which one is which!)

    • July 29, 2010 7:11 pm

      True: they’re around, but you have to be either lucky or watchful to come across the things in person. Or at Womadelaide; I think they’ve had at least one kora player there each year for the past couple of years. Two years ago it was Toumani Diabate and the entire Symmetric Orchestra, which was a buzz. They’re much easier to find on CD.

      • July 30, 2010 12:06 am

        I plan to get to Womadelaide one of these days, though fortunately we do get a bit of world music at the NFF (as I think we’ve discussed before, haven’t we). I haven’t heard of the Symmetric Orchestra.

  5. July 30, 2010 9:07 pm

    Back in March, I think — I think? — when I posted about W. over at Pykk. The Symmetric is Diabate’s West African musical ensemble. One of the benefits of being internationally known is that you get to put together your own team of crack players who zoom around the stages of the world like musical Supermen, upholding the honour of the Mande Empire. I think he has one of their tracks on his myspace:

    • July 30, 2010 9:37 pm

      Oh, thanks DKS, I did read some of your Womadelaide posts didn’t I? But it’s hard to remember names that you haven’t experienced – at least for me! I’ll check out the MySpace link.


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