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The Griffyn Ensemble explores Water with the Swïne

April 6, 2013
Griffyn Ensemble set up, Belconnen Arts Centre

Before the concert, at the Belconnen Arts Centre

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink
(from The rime of the ancient mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

I suppose it could be seen as clichéd to hear these words in a concert called “Water” but when the performers are the Griffyn Ensemble, cliché would be the furthest word from your mind.

“Water” was the last performance in the Water into Swine Festival, 28 March to 5 April, which was the result of an “exchange” between Canberra’s Griffyn Ensemble and Sweden’s Peärls Before Swïne Experience. The Swïne (“The Peärls are the music”, they say) specialise in performing new music and are consequently a good match for the Griffyns with their eclectic and open-minded approach to music.

This concert was a little different to previous Griffyn concerts we’ve attended. Firstly, of course, the Griffyn performers were supplemented by four Swedes; and secondly, the concert programming, perhaps because of the exchange, was a little looser. There was a theme – water – but the connections were, let us say, more fluid! And the program was, I think, a little less diverse, a little less eclectic. I love that they dare to program, as they did in Behind Bars, Johnny Cash next to Theodorakis next to Messaien next to new or lesser-known composers.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy “Water” – because I certainly did – or that it wasn’t eclectic – because it was. It just felt less so!

One of the things I enjoy about the Griffyn Ensemble that I may not have mentioned before is the balance they strike between formal professionalism and something more informal and intimate. Their performances mimic how I think chamber music was originally performed:

Because of its intimate nature, chamber music has been described as “the music of friends.” For more than 200 years, chamber music was played primarily by amateur musicians in their homes, and even today, when most chamber music performance has migrated from the home to the concert hall, many musicians, amateur and professional, still play chamber music for their own pleasure. Playing chamber music requires special skills, both musical and social, that differ from the skills required for playing solo or symphonic works. (from Wikipedia)

This, a sense of intimacy and joy, is what the Griffyn Ensemble manages to achieve – and it is special to be part of it. So, for example, “Water” incorporated a piece – Sloop John B – which was sung by five young boys led by soprano Susan Ellis and featuring young William (Will) Duff (from Behind Bars) who confidently held a second part against, at times, not only the main part sung by the other boys but other instrumental activity behind him. Also, we were addressed, naturally, conversationally, by Australian sailor Kanga Birtles who has circumnavigated the world solo. He spoke of the perils and joys of sailing, of trade winds and being on the water. His words supported the concert’s loosely defined motif which was to do with the old windjammers sailing from Europe to Australia. This motif was conveyed through Swedish pieces played by the Swïne, and pieces from Madagascar (courtesy Ravel), West Indies, Australia and the United States, played by various combinations of the two groups.

Griffyn Ensemble, Belconnen Arts Centre

Before the concert, Belconnen Arts Centre

The most powerful piece of the first half was Robert Erickson‘s Pacific Sirens performed by the full ensemble (piano, flute, harp, violin, cello, guitar, mandolin, percussion, voice – with recorded sound effects). It was an evocative and eerie piece that confirmed my preference for terra firma! I also enjoyed the world premiere of Australian composer Marián Budoš’ Clepsydra which, apparently, means water-clock. It’s a lovely piece with some jazzy elements to it.

While the first half focused primarily on the sea, the second half looked at water from various angles. One piece was the first movement of New Zealand composer Gareth Farr’s Taheke, which is Maori for waterfall. It was performed gorgeously by Kiri Sollis (flute) and Meriel Owen (harp). Flute and harp is a combination I usually enjoy. This half also featured the world premiere of Griffyn Ensemble director Michael Sollis’ Water into swine. Played by the Swïne (violin, cello, piano, flute), it also included vocalisations representing the dripping of water. As violinist George Kentros suggested, “there’s a hole in the bucket”. Playing their instruments while simultaneously vocalising (except for the flautist of course) looked pretty tricky but the players achieved it with a good deal of aplomb!

The Birtles family reappeared in the second half via a reading, by Susan Ellis, of some excerpts from Kanga’s mother (and Kiri Sollis’ grandmother) Dora Birtles’ journal Northwest by North about the trip she did in 1932 in a cutter from Sydney via New Guinea to Singapore. The reading was illustrated by Michael Sollis’ piece, Scenes from Ballad of a Highlands Man, which was performed surround-sound style with Michael and Kiri Sollis playing a traditional flute-like instrument from behind the audience.

I’ve mentioned only a few pieces played during the evening. We also saw Susan Ellis finger-clickin’ and barefootin’ around the “stage” to Alec Wilder‘s Sea Fugue Mama and heard, interspersed through the concert, the three movements of Swedish composer Klas Torstensson‘s Pocket size Violin Concerto, which challenged us with its mix of discordant and lyrical sounds and which was performed with confidence and enthusiasm by the group for which it was written.

Once again I thoroughly enjoyed the Griffyns. They always manage to put on a concert which appeals to a concert-goer like me, that is, one who is a reader-who-likes-music, who likes to think about what the music means, the stories it is telling, the emotions it is conveying. This concert, with its many watery atmospheres, gave me plenty to think about.

Other versions of some of the pieces:

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2013 5:07 am

    I know I should comment on the Griffyn Ensemble, but the truth is that that poem now always makes me think of Max in SeaChange, and Laura and Max getting stuck on that little rowboat, and my heart feels broken and hopeful all at once. xo

    • April 7, 2013 9:04 am

      The thing about the Griffyns is that they can take you in multiple directions … And yours is a watery one leading to emotional ones. I reckon they’d be pleased.

  2. April 7, 2013 6:11 pm

    Sounds very beautiful and challenging. Meanwhile over here my daughter sang a soprano solo in a round and scrolled church in Padua!

    • April 7, 2013 7:02 pm

      That’s it Catherine – beautiful and challenging. And good for your daughter. I bet she was wonderful. I haven’t been to Padua, but it’s on my list.

  3. April 9, 2013 3:14 am

    Wow, what a great evening! I like the sound of the variety the Griffyns offer, it isn’t just sitting in silent darkness listening to music but a whole experience. I imagine the must be sold out all the time and hard to get tickets for.

    • April 9, 2013 7:59 am

      It is a whole experience, Stefanie, which I love … I’m not sure that they always sell out, because they are a unique group, but they get good audiences and I think this last concert did and up being close to capacity. They have their groupies, of which we are two!

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