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The illicit passions of Griffyns

April 3, 2011
Musical instruments at the Belconnen Arts Centre

The instruments await their players

Ha! That got you in didn’t it? Or, didn’t it? It’s been a while since I wrote about a music event. That’s not because I haven’t been to any but because I’m no expert and prefer not to put that on show too often. However, the Griffyn Ensemble is a young, talented ensemble and deserve, I think, to be recognised, encouraged and promoted – and so here I am again, talking about a musical evening.

I have written about the ensemble before but, just to recap, it is a small chamber ensemble which likes to push chamber music into unexpected directions. That includes composing and/or arranging music themselves, premiering the works of other contemporary composers, playing non-chamber music in a more-or-less chamber setting and, sometimes, even, playing chamber music. The concert we attended this weekend was titled Illicit Passions:

From Baroque to Rock ‘n Roll, The Griffyn Ensemble returns with inflamed desires and rapture, performing music exploring the sordid side of love with songs inspired by carnal lust, women of the night and tortured romance, and featuring stories from Ancient Greece to a surreal future. (from the programme)

Sounds a bit like the kitchen-sink, doesn’t it? And, in some senses it was, but this is a group that likes to take its audience “on a journey” rather than, as their musical director Michael Sollis said at the concert, “just playing pieces”.

The ensemble currently comprises:

  • Michael Sollis, Musical director and composer
  • Kiri Sollis, Flute (etc)
  • Matthew O’Keeffe, Clarinet (etc)
  • Wyana Etherington, Percussionist
  • Carly Brown, French Horn
  • Meriel Owen, Harp
  • Susan Ellis, Soprano

Because it is such an eclectic group of musicians, their concerts tend to provide opportunities to showcase individuals though solo and small group performances. And so at this concert we had, for example, Meriel Owen premiering, on the celesta, an intriguing piece composed by Sollis, titled “Letter to a Greek Nymph”; Kiri Sollis and Meriel Owen playing Debussy’s sublime “Prelude à l’après d’un faune”; Matthew O’Keeffe and Kiri Sollis playing a gorgeous rendition of “Send in the clowns“; and Susan Ellis singing, from the back of the room, a heart-rending a capella interpretation of Tori Amos‘ “Me and a gun“. There were also some very entertaining rounds of 18th century drinking songs sung by Michael Sollis, Wyana Etherington and Meriel Owen, and a whole lot more music, ranging from Beethoven to The Police! The concert concluded with a mesmerising (and unfamiliar to me) arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” sung by Ellis, accompanied by Etherington.

The programming was a little odd – but entertaining for all that. I’m not sure how “Forever Young” fits into the theme of “illicit passions” but it could I suppose suggest the “surreal future” referred to in the programme notes. The programme sequencing took us on a bit of a wild ride in which the connections were not always completely clear. But – and this is a big but – the performers played (and sang) beautifully and I do like music programming that’s innovative, that challenges we audiences to think about what we’re hearing and why. There’s joy in this ensemble – even when the music is sombre.

Silver moon upon the deep dark sky,
Through the vast night pierce your rays.
(From “Song to the moon”, by Antonin Dvorak)

… sang Ellis, early in the second half. Some 30 minutes or so later, we went out into the dark sky, gladdened that we have such an ensemble in our town.


15 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2011 10:15 pm

    This sounds as though it was wonderful. I love evenings of eclectic music from small ensembles such as this and we are very fortunate where I live because we have half a dozen venues where we can hear such performances regularly. In fact, we’re soon to get another one, because the local University is in the middle of building a new concert hall which will open in about eighteen months time. I’m so glad you enjoyed this and I refuse to be envious because I so many opportunities of my own to enjoy similar pleasures.

    • April 3, 2011 11:10 pm

      Oh good, my aim wasn’t to make you envious so I’m glad you are refusing that pull. University towns usually have a healthy cultural life so I’m not surprised you have your own opportunities. I wish I could get to more … but last month was stellar with 3 different experiences: a chamber music concert featuring Andreas Scholl, a gospel choir performance with a visiting American conductor, and a local jazz group. I love such variety. This month has started off well …

      • April 5, 2011 2:53 am

        Oh, I heard Scholl in ‘Saul’ two or three years ago. He was magnificent!

        • April 5, 2011 7:55 pm

          Yes, he’s wonderful. We first saw him in 2006 and he sang a variety of songs including some English folk songs. I bought the folk songs CD, Wayfaring stranger I think it is called, and it is one of my favourite CDs. Saul would have been wonderful. This concert was Purcell and Handel (but not Saul).

  2. April 4, 2011 6:13 am

    Damn I thought you’d taken the leap to the dark side.

    On the music front (since we are having a chat), I just bought Eminem’s Recovery. The Xplicit version, naturally.

  3. April 4, 2011 4:54 pm

    I’m so glad you had a lovely time! I know I would’ve loved this, so hopefully you enjoyed it enough for the both of us 🙂

  4. April 7, 2011 2:22 am

    This sounds like a lovely evening with such an interesting variety of music. I have never heard of a celesta, so thanks for teaching me something new 🙂

    • April 7, 2011 8:22 am

      Thanks Stefanie. I continually gobsmacked by the new instruments that keep coming out of the woodwork … I’d heard of a celeste/celesta before but if you’d asked me what it was I’d have been hardpressed. It has a very unusual sound.

  5. April 7, 2011 3:59 am

    Re. I do like music programming that’s innovative

    Back in January we spent a day at the local county’s annual bluegrass festival, and the organisation, the programming, was so smart, that it gave this small-scale event a depth and largeness that it could easily not have had. There were amateur bands (the local banjo pickin’ collective, the nearby we-meet-in-Joe’s-garage-one-a-week fiddling troupe) and professional bands, and the professional bands might have been chosen for the contrasts between them — this was where the cleverness was — because I came away feeling that I’d had a rounded view of what bluegrass was, and might be, from just five groups of musicians. There was a family band singing religious harmonies, there was a physically vigourous band that finished its set with a bluegrass version of an ’80s pop song, there was a band of ancient farmers so stiff in the joints that they planted themselves in front of the microphones with the help of canes and afterwards barely moved a thing but their hands and heads, one group fast and heartless, another group slow and sentimental, one group with a fiddle, another group with no fiddle, one group with a washtub bass, the rest with no washtub bass. A beautiful balancing act from whatever person or committee was responsible for that line-up.

    • April 7, 2011 8:29 am

      That sounds wonderful – and the sort of mix I enjoy at the National Folk Festival (only a few weeks ago – and I love it). Have we discussed this before? The bluegrass brothers from Melbourne: http://www.davidsonbrothersband.com/homedb.htm We saw them at the NFF last year and they were wonderful.

      PS I’d love to have seen the ancient farmers! Unadulterated traditional bluegrass would be a bit much after a while I think but a concert like the one you describe would be very appealing.

      • April 26, 2011 3:27 am

        I think you’re right — I’ve probably mentioned it before. (If I did, did I mention that the banjo-playing farmer had no front teeth?) I would love to see bluegrass from Melbourne. I was angling after the local blues group Collard Greens and Gravy for a while but somehow managed to miss them every time they had a show.

        The only thing that got a bit much was the jokes. I don’t know if there’s some kind of silent law that forces bluegrass musicians to pull out hoary one-liners but oh man, I wished they’d stop.

        • April 26, 2011 2:54 pm

          Yes, I’ve heard of Collard Greens and Gravy but I don’t think I’ve heard them. The jokes… that does seem to go with some folkie musicians, not just bluegrass, but fortunately I didn’t come across too many one-liners this year. But then again I didn’t see much bluegrass this year for some reason. Saw a great blues guitarist though, Fiona Boyes. Some good stories but not hoary one-liners.

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