The Griffyns experiment with Utopia

In a recent Monday Musings, I referred to the fact that the Griffyn Ensemble’s last concert for 2015 would be about the New Australia Movement’s Utopia experiment in Paraguay. That concert took place this last weekend, and what a concert it was. The Griffyns – yes, I’m a fan – just keep getting better. Well, actually, they’ve always been good musicians, but the concerts are becoming tighter, more coherent perhaps, while still retaining the freshness, inventiveness and intimacy that we members so enjoy about them.

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

Mary Gilmore, 1927 (Public Domain, at State Library of QLD, via Wikipedia)

The Griffyns do like to move around town, so this concert was held in the foyer of the National Portrait Gallery. Not surprisingly, there were a couple of portraits of Dame Mary Gilmore on the wall behind the performers. The venue worked nicely (even though we do like the Belconnen Arts Centre’s friendly little bar!) The acoustics – to my ears – were excellent, and the natural, early evening light coming in through the big windows was just delightful.

But now, the music, which, appropriately, all came from Australian and South American composers. At the start, musical director Michael Sollis announced a change in the program, swapping the third piece, Gerardo Dirié’s Ti xiuhtototl, with the fifth piece, Eric Gross’s Rondino Pastorale. I wondered why – and whether it might become evident as the concert went on. It did, because Gross’s work and the piece preceding it, George Dreyfus’ Mary Gilmore goes to Paraguay, are lyrical, pastoral pieces evoking idyllic scenes appropriate to the ideals of the new Utopia. By contrast, Gerardo Dirié’s piece is more plaintive, sombre, even a little discordant. In terms of the story being told, it fit better towards the end of the concert as the Utopian dream is starting to fail. The story, in other words, was conveyed musically as well as through words spoken and sung by Susan Ellis who, with a twinkle in her eye, played an older Dame Mary Gilmore looking back on her Paraguayan experience.

The program was, at roughly one-hour, shorter than many Griffyn programs, but it ran without a break, transitioning seamlessly from piece to piece. The concert opened with Sollis speaking a promo for New Australia – “Start your life afresh”, he exhorted. This was followed by Laura Tanata on harp and Chris Stone on violin playing Nigel Westlake’s Beneath the midnight sun. It was beautiful, with Tanata’s gentle, lyrical harp offset by the more plaintive violin, suggesting to me a little uncertainty (for the new colony, I mean, not the musicians. Their playing was mesmerising, and set a high standard, which was fortunately maintained).

Ellis then took up the story from Gilmore’s point of view, and we heard the ensemble play Dreyfus’ accessible, melodic piece which, with its hints at times of a rousing, western movie theme, conveyed the excitement and enthusiasm of pioneers. I loved Kiri Sollis’ flute and Stone’s violin here. It’s a crowd-pleasing sort of piece, and was played with a verve which carried us all along. Gross’s piece continued this positive tone, while Ellis, as Gilmore, told us nostalgically that “I wish I was back in Cosme” (Cosme being the name of Lane’s second settlement in Paraguay).

This was followed by the central piece of the concert, Vincent Plush’s “The Paraguay songs” from The plaint of Mary Gilmore. It’s a rather tricky piece requiring Ellis to sing words from Gilmore’s letters. Yes, you’ve read correctly, from letters – that is, not from verse, but from prose. I sat up. Good prose, of course, does have rhythm, but these were letters, not crafted fiction. Here are a few lines from the program:

Communism as we have it is alright, Harry*, and we are getting on — slowly, of course, but in a year or two what is now is, will have gone, so beautiful, so rich in bird-life, and plants. And the history! And the story of the war. If you were only here Henry.

See what I mean? It takes some singer and composer to make that work. I was impressed by how well and expressively Ellis, not to mention the full ensemble, rose to the challenge.

The aforementioned rather sombre Dirié work followed this, and was performed, with a melancholic soulfulness, by the four female Griffyns who sang some lovely harmony, in addition to playing their instruments. Really moving. This was preceded by Gilmore telling us about some of the troubles in the colony, and was followed by another sombre-sounding piece, The freedom of silence by Alcides Lanza.

The concert concluded with Gilmore expressing sadness that Cosme did not turn out to be what she expected. She left in 1900, five years after she arrived, because of the pettiness and squabbles. Nonetheless, she never regretted the experience, arguing that while it was not a success, neither was it a complete failure:

… we failed the harshly scornful say … [but] we sowed a seed.

Villa-Lobos’s wistfully sad Song of the black swan (with hints, if my ears didn’t mistake me, of Swan Lake), played by Tanata and Downes, concluded what was a satisfying, well-performed and nicely conceived concert. Roll on 2016 I say … if you are in Canberra, and would like to know more (and even buy tickets), check out their website.

You can hear different versions of two of the pieces online:

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (Musical Director and Mandolin), Susan Ellis (Soprano), Kiri Sollis (Flutes), Chris Stone (Violin), Laura Tanata (Harp) and Holly Downes (Double Bass).

* Henry Lawson

11 thoughts on “The Griffyns experiment with Utopia

  1. A marvelous conclusion to another good season! Makes me wonder what they will be up to next year and I don;t even get to go to their concerts! But I am looking forward to hearing about them from you:

  2. Fascinating. It is nice to read about something other than books! As a mandolin player myself i noticed that Michael Sollis plays the instrument too. I found a video of him here

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