The Griffyns go Behind Bars

Griffyn Ensemble set up

Before the concert

The Griffyn Ensemble has done it again. They’ve presented a concert that moved, challenged, educated and entertained us. Behind Bars, which was performed last week in Melbourne, Bendigo and Canberra, was the third and final concert of their 2012 season. Like all their concerts it had a theme, this one being, obviously, imprisonment.

This thematic approach is one of the things I greatly enjoy about Griffyn Ensemble. I love the way they marry music with ideas. I guess it appeals to the reader in me. However, while I’ve enjoyed the themes and the music the Griffyns have chosen to represent them, what hasn’t always been clear to me, and I’ve mentioned this before, has been the logic behind the order of the program. Their last concert, which was structured around the four seasons, was clearer, but in Behind Bars the coherence was both logically and philosophically satisfying. Let me describe the program in the order it was presented …

Behind Bars Installation

The concert’s opening introduced us to the main composers and ideas to be further explored in the concert. The performers were spaced around the room, behind, in front of and beside us, and, one by one, provided a spoken and brief musical introduction to one of the concert’s composers. As each new musician performed his/her composer’s snippet, the previous musician/s performed theirs concurrently.  It could have been a mess, but it was lightly and sensitively done and worked well as a concert opener. This section concluded with the ensemble singing Gideon Klein‘s “Poljuŝko, Pole” which was composed in Theresienstadt in 1942.

Abyss of the Birds

Clarinettist Matthew O’Keeffe then performed the clarinet solo movement from Olivier Messiaen‘s Quartet for the End of Time, which was composed in a prisoner-of-war camp in 1941. Messaien apparently said, after this piece was performed in Poland’s Stalag VIII, that “never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension”. This was a lovely piece – though you should know that I’m partial to clarinet. I heard in it strains of jazz and hymns interspersed with the sound of birds. This “birdsong” provided an unexpected sense of hope and freedom amongst the melancholy tones that surrounded it.


As you have probably guessed from the heading, the third section of the concert also came from the Second World War and comprised pieces created and/or performed in this Czech concentration camp. The highlight of this section was a performance of the children’s opera, Brundibár, composed by Hans Krasa. WC Fields apparently once said “never work with children or animals” and I must say that guest artist, eight-year-old William Duff, almost stole the show. He sang clearly and sweetly, and his acting was natural and confident. He seemed to have a lovely relationship with his “mother”, the beautifully expressive soprano Susan Ellis. This delightfully entertaining piece was followed by the news that, after performing the work for a Nazi promotional film, the composer, musicians and performers were all sent to Auschwitz and thence the gas chambers. The section closed on the song, “I wander through Theresienstadt”, by poet Ilse Weber (who, with her son, was also transferred to Auschwitz and the gas chambers).

It was in a sombre mood that we went to intermission.

San Quentin

San Quentin was represented by Johnny Cash’s song “San Quentin” composed in 1969 and an earlier piece, “Vocalise”,  by Henry Cowell (imprisoned for “bisexual behaviour”).

March of the Spirit

The concert concluded with an eight-song “folk oratorio” composed by Mikis Theodorakis in 1969 while under arrest at Zoutona during Greece’s military dictatorship of the late 1960s. The piece, March of the Spirit, was set to poems written by Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos during the Greek Civil War in the 1940s. It was described in the program notes as “a collection of eight songs that are a melting post of classical and traditional music elevating the great works of Greek literature and inspiring a new message of democracy and freedom for the Greeks”. Michael Sollis – in a strong, appropriately Greek-sounding voice – and Susan Ellis did the singing, backed, as ever, by the rest of the ensemble on harp, percussion, clarinet and flute. The rousing words – comprising such images as “the earth has been overfertilised with human flesh” interspersed with patriotic calls to freedom – were displayed on a screen for the audience to follow.

What I liked, then, about the concert in terms of its programming coherence is basically this. The opening section provided an effective introduction to the concert’s music and ideas. It was then followed by four sections that were essentially chronological – World War 2 then the 1960s. And, philosophically it ended on a positive note – through a work that expresses the pain of civil unrest but is also a rousing call to freedom and democracy. My only comment, really, is that given the Griffyns are an Australian group performing in Australia, some Australian content might have been appropriate. The toughest issue to tackle would be Aboriginal Deaths in Custody but that would probably be too culturally sensitive for such a group to take on. One day, perhaps, but not quite yet.

I’m aware that I’ve written a lot of words but said little about the music and the musicians. I’ll just say that it was a musically, emotionally and intellectually satisfying concert – and I greatly look forward to the Ensemble’s 2013 season. There are always compensations I find for the years flying by!

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