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Griffyn Ensemble’s 2013 Elements of Canberra season

November 17, 2013

The Griffyns ended their 2013 season on a high … literally (in a performance of “Southern Sky”) and figuratively (with beautiful playing under somewhat challenging circumstances … but more on that anon).

Griffyn Ensemble, CSIRO Discovery Centre

Downstairs, CSIRO Discovery Centre (A bit dark for my digital compact!)

You have to be hardy to be a Griffyn Ensemble follower. You never know where you will have to go to hear their next concert. In this Canberra Centenary year for their “Elements of Canberra” season, we went to the Belconnen Arts Centre ( “Water”) where the lovely Lake Gininderra forms a backdrop, the CSIRO Discovery Centre ( “Earth”), the TAMS Depot industrial hangar (“Air”) and the roofless shell of the ruined telescope on Mt Stromlo (“Stars”). These are not your usual concert venues with plush seats. In fact, a couple required some serious rugging up, but if the musicians are prepared to perform in these atmospheric venues, their loyal followers are clearly prepared to join them.

I haven’t written about the Griffyns this year since the first concert, mainly because we headed off overseas the day after the second concert and had only just returned, with all the concomitant catching up to do, before the third. (Indeed we sandwiched our trip to fit between these two concerts). I don’t plan to review them now. As I’ve said before, I’m not a musician. What I know, technically, about music you could fit on a clarinet reed. But, I do like music that moves, entertains, wows and challenges me – and this is what the Griffyns do for me. So, instead of writing a review, I’m just going to do a little recap of the other three concerts of the season.

It is not necessary to understand music; it is only necessary that one enjoy it (Leopold Stokowski)

The second concert was themed Earth, focusing on Trees and celebrating National Science Week. It took place in the CSIRO Discovery Centre’s atrium, where we were surrounded by trees, and displays and models from nature. It was mid-August and therefore winter in Canberra. Just as well we brought our winter woollies as the Griffyns took us on a musical and physical journey, upstairs and downstairs in this atmospheric, open-plan-glass-walled building. The concert was accompanied by a stylish booklet designed by local artist Annika Romeyn (whose illustrations were on display at the concert). That concert was some time ago now – or at least, I have done much since then including a 2-month overseas trip – so the memory has dimmed. It was, however, a typically eclectic Griffyn concert, as Annika Romeyn describes on her blog. It started with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho‘s lovely, wistful piece “Fall” which, to me, had at times a rather Japanese sound. It featured the harp (Meriel Owen). And it ended with Michael Sollis’ composition, “City of Trees”, which was commissioned by Robyn Archer for our Centenary. In between were pieces like Martin Wesley-Smith‘s now well-known and fun “Caterpillar”; German-American composer Ursula Mamlock’s “Der Andreasgarten” featuring critters like dragonflies and hummingbirds; an arrangement of Cold Chisel’s “Flame Trees”; and, dear to my heart, Michael Sollis’ “Song of Trees”. It was composed for the opening of the National Arboretum and comprises an extensive list of tree names starting, of course, with gums. It was sung with aplomb by the Ensemble. You can read Clinton White’s review of this concert at CityNews.

Griffyn Ensemble, TAMS Depot, Kingston

Griffyns in the Tams Depot, Kingston

The next concert, Air, saw us sitting around cable drums in an old hangar on, fortunately, a very pleasant Spring day. We were neither too cold nor too hot. This concert, which coincided with the SPIN Festival, took us travelling by train, bike, plane and even into space. It started on a light note with Luigi Denza’s “Funiculi Funicula”, led by the always-expressive soprano Susan Ellis, and included another ensemble vocal piece led by Ellis, Freddie Mercury’s “Bicycle Race”. As with all their concerts, this one featured some seriously virtuosic playing, particularly from Kiri Sollis (flute) whose “The Great Train Race” (by Ian Clarke) was breathtaking and Matthew O’Keeffe who pushed his clarinet to surely its highest registers in “Someone is learning how to fly” (by Marie Samuelson). The final piece was Brian Eno’s mesmerising, eerie “Music for Airports” (first movement). It’s some 15 minutes or so long and rather repetitive but I could have listened forever. Dare I say I could imagine doing yoga to this, lifting my spirit while contorting my body!

Mt Stromlo burnt out telescope

In the roofless, burnt out telescope on Mt Stromlo

The year ended on something a little different, because, unusually, the whole concert comprised one multi-movement piece called “Southern Sky” by Estonian Urmas Sisask who was inspired by his visit to Australia in the 1990s. You can read an excellent review of the concert on the Canberra Critics Circle blog. I really can’t add anything to what they’ve said. It was cold but, luckily for us (and the musicians), the rain that fell a few kilometres away on my house missed us. The piece, arranged by Michael Sollis, shows off all members of the Ensemble (as the above-mentioned review describes). It was magical, spoilt only by the fact that the cloudy sky meant that astronomer Fred Watson could not actually point out any of the constellations represented in the pieces. I did love seeing Wyana O’Keeffe back in her percussion spot. We’ve missed her this year while she’s been away on baby duties.

And so 2013 ended, a credit to Michael Sollis and his impressive all-round musicianship. What a team they are.

The Griffyns have announced their 2014 season, which is themed “Fairy Tales” and will see them again collaborating, as they like to do, with other creators around town. I can hardly wait.

If you are interested, you can hear examples of some of the music we’ve heard on the links below – but note that many of the pieces will be somewhat different to the versions we’ve heard, as ours were arranged by Michael Sollis for the Ensemble’s particular mix of instruments:

With apologies for this self-indulgent post but, you know, it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2013 7:06 pm

    Sounds rather amazing! Very adventurous and inspiring.

  2. November 18, 2013 12:05 pm

    How fascinating! Go go gadget Canberra; I love that this series was so innovative.

    • November 18, 2013 3:10 pm

      Oh they are wonderfully innovative … and introduce us to all sorts of contemporary composers – Japanese, Scandinavian, and others – in addition to “playing” with pop, rock, jazz, folk etc.

  3. November 20, 2013 4:45 am

    What a marvelous series of concerts! Did you find the different venues enhanced your enjoyment?

    • November 20, 2013 8:24 am

      Yes, Stefanie, I think they did in a way! The last one, under the non-stars, particularly so. And the hangar suited the subject matter perfectly. It was fun sitting around the cable drums … And it helped that it was a perfect day with the light streaming in from the back.

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