Those Griffyns, if you haven’t realised it from my previous posts, are a brave and versatile bunch. Their latest outing, the Ear of the Cat, was inspired by musical director Michael Sollis’ residency in Egypt last year. Performed last weekend, it was the ensemble’s first real concert of the year and was included – a first for them I think – in this year’s Canberra International Music Festival.
Another first, sort of, is that it was designed to appeal to children or, as the Ensemble’s promo describes it, it’s “a staged production for the young and young at heart: a show all about cats, magical keys, video games, and a green soup eaten by ancient kings”. (I say “sort of” because the Griffyns did create and perform a school version of last year’s ANZAC Dirty Red Digger program.)
So, a staged production featuring cats. Here is how the Griffyns explained it:
Come on an adventure of discovery as deep within an underground Egyptian tomb, four mummified cats are woken by a mysterious sound. Join these inquisitive cats and be led by your ears, as you journey through an unfamiliar new world of haunted mazes, video games, and the streets of contemporary Cairo to help the cats find a way to belong in the land of the living.
It was a 45-minute (or thereabouts) program that took us from a mummy’s tomb to the streets of Cairo. As we walked into the performance space we were confronted with four colour-coded mummified “cats” (Holly Downes, Susan Ellis, Chris Stone and Michael Sollis) lying on pallets down the length of the hall (in the Ainslie Arts Centre). Gradually, to the call of sophisticated cat Kiri Sollis’ gorgeous piccolo – acting like a Pied Piper, perhaps? – the cats awoke and shed their mummy bindings, and started looking for a way out. A key was found but were they brave enough to venture out? Perhaps not – or not quite yet. This was, though, a multi-media performance, so while the cats crept about, uncertain of what to do, we were entertained by video interviews with young Egyptians about life and cats in Cairo. They were engaging as young people can be and added a dose of reality to the fantasy being enacted in front of us – but finally we discovered that the “ear of the cat” is the shape into which you tear and then fold pita bread to eat green Mulukhiyah soup. You can always be sure to learn something new from the Griffyns!
Now, what else to say? Michael Sollis’ clever music, which supported the narrative, varied from cattish-wailing to foot-stomping, from discordant sounds reflecting anxiety and uncertainty to lyrical jig-like and sometimes jazzy ensemble pieces conveying confidence. Laura Tanata’s harp played a gentle encouraging role throughout. Soprano Susan Ellis, reminding me of a spunky (less tatty) Grizabella from Cats*, prowled the room looking for answers, and at one point carried on an evocative and entertaining squeaky “conversation” with Kiri Sollis’ piccolo (if I’ve remembered correctly). The whole ended with a “miao chorus” inviting audience participation.
While the “story” was about mummified cats, it called up, for me, a broader archetype – sophisticated town cat versus nervous country cousins – and, as in all good stories, they all got together in the end.
I must admit that I’m not sure I fully comprehended all the connections being made as the story progressed, perhaps because coming from an older generation I’m not so good at quickly absorbing multiple inputs, but I always enjoy seeing what these skilled performers come up with. They make music meaningful and fun, and present it with a great deal of warmth towards their audience. I look forward to their next concert.
Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (Musical Director and Mandolin), Susan Ellis (Soprano), Kiri Sollis (Piccolo), Chris Stone (Violin), Laura Tanata (Harp) and Holly Downes (Double Bass).
* Ian McLean who reviewed the performance for City News was also reminded of Grizabella! I think it was the long fur coat.