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The Griffyns go to China with Gough

February 13, 2015

… figuratively speaking, of course! The Griffyn Ensemble commenced their 2015 season in fine style, with guest artist, Chinese pipa player, Professor Zhang Hongyan. As always, the concert had a theme, evident from its title, Whitlam in China (and the development of friendly relations between our two countries). It was a tightly performed, well conceived and thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Lingling Yu playing Pipa at Musée Guimet, Paris (Courtesy: Dalbera, CC-BY-2.0, via flickr)

Lingling Yu playing Pipa at Musée Guimet, Paris (Courtesy: Dalbera, CC-BY-2.0, via flickr)

First though, we had the pre-concert entertainment by the string quartet from the China Philharmonic Orchestra. They played three Chinese pieces – all folk-based – in the National Library of Australia’s Lower Ground public space. I don’t remember the names of the first two pieces, but the second one had a gorgeous melancholy to it, and it sounded a little familiar. The first violinist told us that it was about longing and homesickness, and is frequently used for Chinese New Year. I’ve probably heard it somewhere! The third piece was a lovely contrast, “Happy Girl”. Many of us listening couldn’t resist bobbing our heads a little. These folk tunes sounded fine in a Western string quartet configuration.

After this prelude, we all filed into the National Library’s lovely 300-seat theatre, a favourite place of mine and one that I had much to do with professionally, many moons ago. I love visiting it.

Somewhat unusual for the Griffyns, this program’s narrative had a clear chronology, commencing with Gough Whitlam’s election to parliament in 1952 and ending pretty much with the famous dismissal in 1975. The music itself though moved around a bit in time. Here is the program, with links to online versions* (mostly played by other performers) where I have found them:

  • I will build my house on the water. By Horace Keats to a 4th century Chinese poem. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble (Soprano JaneParkin with Pianist Clemens Leske version)
  • Dragon boat. Traditional. Performed by Hongyan Zhang
  • Moonlit night on the Spring River. Traditional, based on a Chinese poem by Zhang Ruoxu. Performed by  Hongyan Zhang, with the Griffyn Ensemble (China Broadcasting Traditional Orchestra version)
  • In our image, in our likeness. Movements 1, 3, 4. By Leilei Tian. Performed by Kiri Sollis (Recorders), Chris Stone (Violin) (mp3 version)
  • Like spinning plates. By Radiohead. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble, featuring Susan Ellis (Soprano). (Radiohead’s own version)
  • It’s time. By Paul Jones and Mike Shirley. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble, featuring Susan Ellis (Soprano). (Original version)
  • Dance music of the Yi People. By Wang Huiran. Performed by Hongyan Zhang. (Chu Yuan version)
  • Big decisions: The Whitlam dismissal. By Robert Davidson. Performed by the Griffyn Ensemble.
  • The song of the pipa player. By Mo Fan to a poem by Bai Juyi. Performed by Hongyan Zhang, with the Griffyn Ensemble (Ding Yi Music Company version)

If you listen to any of these you will realise what a varied – as usual – concert it was.

The concert was narrated by Griffyn musical director Michael Sollis, frequently accompanied by apposite little bars on the double bass (Holly Downes). He had clearly done a lot of reading about Whitlam’s political life, and his narration included quotes from people of the time, such as other politicians and officials, commentators and journalists. While Mr Gums and I, unlike the Griffyns, lived the era, I did learn some things. Gough, after all, was some decades older than I! I learnt, for example, that the first time he mentioned Australia recognising or making overtures to China was in 1954! Sollis described in some detail Whitlam’s history-making visit to China in 1971, when he was still Opposition leader. Whitlam, Sollis reported with a wry look, told Chinese premier Zhou Enlai that

The Australian people have had a bitter experience in going all the way with LBJ. They know America made [Prime Minister Harold Holt] change his policy and they will never again allow the American president to send [Australian] troops to another country.

Sollis also quoted Stephen FitzGerald, who accompanied Whitlam and who later became Australia’s ambassador to China. FitzGerald described the trip as:

an expedition of great bravado and exposure but [also?] great political judgment and luck. It was a journey to the unknown because no one knew what would come of it or who Whitlam would meet. It was personal diplomacy of great political sensitivity.

This section of the narrative was accompanied by a performance of Leilei Tian’s In our image, in our likeness by Kiri Sollis on recorders and Chris Stone on violin to evoke the meeting between Whitlam and Zhou Enlai. I enjoyed listening to the music and thinking about how the two instruments, the two melodies, might reflect the content and tone of the talks. And it was performed with such aplomb and skill by these two musicians who clearly enjoyed what they were doing. One of the many highlights of the night.

Another highlight was the revival-style performance, led by soprano Susan Ellis, of the ALP’s 1972 election song, It’s time. The audience couldn’t resist clapping along.

And finally, while still on the Whitlam theme, I enjoyed Big decisions: the Whitlam dismissal, a piece composed by Australian Robert Davidson for wind quartet with recorded speech. We, of course, had the Griffyns, not a wind quartet, and I presume Sollis had arranged it, as he had the final piece, The song of the pipa player. The recorded speech component of Big decisions comprised excerpts of speeches made at the time – most of which we of a certain age, or students of politics, recognised. The Australian Music Centre says that “The music emphases the inherent melody in recorded voices of Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Sir John Kerr and a supporting cast of Paul Keating, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Sir Charles Court and others”. I loved the way key words and lines from the speeches were repeated with musical accompaniment working around them. Intriguing. Clever.

And then, on top of all this was the pipa, played with such energy and yet delicacy too by Zhang Hongyan. Just check the link I’ve provided under Dragon boat to see what I mean. The concert ended with an ensemble performance of The song of the pipa player composed to a 9th century poem by Bai Juyi. Sollis explained the origin of the piece … here is the beginning of the poet’s foreword to it:

In 815 I was demoted from the Capital to a local Officer of Jiujiang Prefecture. One autumn night of the following year, while seeing off friends on a boat leaving Penpu harbor on the Yangtze River, I suddenly heard a pipa tune being played from the neighboring boat. The music style was clearly from the capital. Being totally surprised, I made an inquiry and learned that the musician was a lady who used to be a famous star in the Capital … Then her glorious years past with the time as her beauty faded. Finally she had to lower herself to marry to a merchant.

Demotion, you see … a fitting conclusion to a wonderful concert in which music and narrative combined perfectly to keep the audience engaged from beginning to end.

Ensemble: Kiri Sollis (flute), Chris Stone (violin), Laura Tanata (harp), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Michael Sollis (director/composer).

* I tend to provide links where I can because much of the music the Griffyns play is unfamiliar.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2015 02:19

    Another wonderful Griffyn concert! I do enjoy hearing about them 🙂

    • February 14, 2015 12:46

      Thanks Stefanie. Sometimes I wonder because I don’t do straight music reviews. I barely know vibrato from arpeggio!! (Well, I probably know that, but not much more!) But I love these concerts … Their musicianship is great (I can tell that!), their concerts are so intellectually interesting, and I always hear new music, which keeps me on my toes.

  2. February 14, 2015 06:40

    This is a bit rarified for me, Sue; but I do love the energy and enthusiasm you have for the Griffyns – and I’m sure they deserve it !

  3. February 14, 2015 11:46

    Sounds a wonderful concert; and that your lucky to have the Griffyns in Canberra

  4. February 15, 2015 08:12

    The Griffyns I’ve heard of because of a previous post you’d written. But I admit I haven’t heard of Whitlam. Anyway, this sounds like an interesting concert. And, sadly, I’m afraid, as you quoted from Zhou Enlai’s days (Mao’s), the recent turn of events in China reminds me of the cultural revolution where all western thoughts and influences were wiped out by Mao. Only recently the Education Minister was pursuing the banning of Western textbooks in universities. A preposterous measure of course, libraries that carry foreign books are closed, and the tightening of control of opposing voices. My view is a pessimistic one on that country. Cultural exchange has to be both ways or else can’t be viewed as ‘exchange’.

    • February 15, 2015 08:52

      Yes, fair point Arti, about China’s current activities. Whitlam was our PM from 1972-1975 and was, probably, our greatest ever reformist prime minister. There’s too much to go into now but free tertiary education and our Medicare health scheme were the two big ones everyone remembers. He died last year, at the age of 94 or 95.

      • February 15, 2015 08:58

        Pardon my ignorance. An important statesman indeed.

        • February 15, 2015 11:41

          You’re Canadian, Arti, you are forgiven!

        • Lithe lianas permalink
          February 15, 2015 13:31

          A minor point but Whitlam was 98 (and a bit) years old.

        • February 15, 2015 21:50

          Thanks Lithe Lianas. I knew I should have checked!(Anything int he 90s is an achievement to me!)

  5. February 19, 2015 08:41

    I will take my time and will snoop around in your blog, so I will get to know you. Nice to meet you so far. I often saw your picture at M-R’s’s time to get to know you!

    • February 19, 2015 08:59

      Why thank you, nonsmokingladybug. Snoop as much as you like. I will return the favour on yours!

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