The Griffyns meet Red Note
Some Griffyn Ensemble concerts are intellectually challenging and some are educational, some are musically innovative and some are simply good fun, but some, like this week’s Castles of Refuge, are just plain beautiful.
Castles of Refuge was the third concert of this year’s four-concert season and was presented in collaboration with Scottish new music group, the Red Note Ensemble. In fact, it’s been a bumper week for Griffyn Ensemble followers, as they presented three events involving the Red Notes, though unfortunately we missed the first one:
- Noisy Nights, Wednesday 12th October, The Front Gallery Café: Red Note premiered four works by Canberra composers, and hosted a 10-minute composers challenge.
- Red Note Ensemble, Thursday 13th October, Belconnen Arts Centre: From the minimalist calm of Arvo Pärt to the wild imaginings of Witold Litoslowki, from the romance of Robbie Burns to the folk sounds of the Hebrides and Morocco, this concert included works by Pärt, Lutosławski, Béla Bartók, Luciano Berio, and lovely music written by Red Note members, cellist Robert Irvine and violinist Jackie Shave. It was a delightful concert, and wonderful for us to hear this skilled, personable group strut their usual stuff.
- Castles of Refuge, 14th/15th October, National Portrait Gallery.
Castles of Refuge is the concert I’ll focus on here, as it was the Griffyn Ensemble’s subscription concert. It took the form of a more traditional chamber music concert, that is, it comprised three pieces of reasonable length, with the only “non-standard” component being recorded audio in the last piece. There were no audiovisual images or dancers or artists or outside-speakers. Just music. Once again, I love the way the Griffyns mix it up, the way they comfortably present different concert formats to suit different goals.
Michael Sollis introduced the concert, suggesting that the concert’s three Australian and British pieces explored isolation. He then left it to us, the audience, to ponder how, as the concert progressed.
The concert commenced then with the Red Note quartet and Griffyn’s soprano, Susan Ellis, performing Australian composer Paul Stanhope’s five-movement song cycle “Sea chronicles”. Ellis introduced the piece, speaking a little about the two ensembles’ recent experience of the sea during their workshop at Four Winds in Bermagui, and reading a couple of excerpts from poems she’d be singing. The piece, our program notes said, “celebrates various dimensions of our coastal environment”. The songs are drawn from Australian poems: Victor Daley’s “The nightingale”, Rex Ingamell’s “Sea chronicles”, George Essex Evans’ “By the sea”, Elizabeth Riddell’s “Life-saver”, and Adam Lindsay Gordon’s “The swimmer”.
This was so beautiful. At times Ellis’ voice united almost completely with the strings and at other times rose powerfully above them, her lovely clear voice sometimes conveying melancholy and calm, and other times power and drama. The program notes said:
Most of the texts in this piece (all by Australian poets) emphasize the celebrative and reflective qualities of the sea rather than following the European tradition of the sea as a metaphor for human struggle.
I take the point about this distinction but yet, as we Aussies know, the sea isn’t always benign, and Ellis told stories of death and body bags as her sea claimed the life of a lifesaver.
The concert’s middle piece, “Seavaigers”, was composed by Scotland’s Sally Beamish and was written, our notes said, “for and with two of the foremost soloists in the Celtic tradition, Chris Stout and Catriona Mckay”. Griffyn’s Chris Stone introduced the piece, calling it a “double concerto”. He would play the fiddle solo, while Kiri Sollis on flute and Michael Sollis on mandolin would represent the harp! Fair enough. The rest of the two ensembles’ musicians, sans soprano, completed the performing group for this three-movement (“Storm”, “Lament”, and “Haven”) work. The notes explained that the region which inspired the work comprises some of the world’s “most beautiful and romantic seascapes” but has also “claimed countless lives”. The piece roams over various emotions, some mournful, some more up-beat, as the movement titles imply.
The playing here, as in the previous piece, was tight and evocative. Amazingly so for musicians who had only been working together for two weeks. Clearly their Four Winds workshopping alongside what seemed to be a level of simpatico between the players was at work here. There was a lovely ensemble sound, with the solo parts, fiddle and flute, playing confidently, lyrically, but never completely stealing the show. This was Mr Gums’ favourite work of the evening and it was beautiful, but fence-sitter me would find it hard to name one above the others.
The concert concluded with the whole ensemble, in a semi-circle, performing Gavin Bryar’s mesmeric “Jesus blood never failed me yet”, which, as you may know, was written to accompany a repeating loop of an unknown homeless man’s song recorded in London. Running for 23 minutes, it has a simple structure, commencing with the audio loop of the man singing, quietly at first and becoming louder while gradually, starting with, in our case, cello then viola, the instruments joining in one by one, with soprano Susan Ellis last in. Again, I loved how her voice at times merged almost completely with the recorded voice and instruments, and would then rise in a subdued yet powerful harmony. She, then the instruments in reverse order, slowly dropped away again, until we were left with the recorded voice on its own, fading away. So simple, so sombrely repetitive, and yet so emotive.
And that, folks, ended yet another wonderful Griffyn concert. Mr Gums and I repaired to our favourite after-concert supper spot, Muse (Food Wine Books), to ponder what we’d just experienced – and to look forward to the last concert of the year featuring the work of Alec Wilder.
Other YouTube versions of some of the music:
- Paul Stanhope’s Sea Chronicles IV, performed by Jane Sheldon and the Ironwood Chamber Ensemble
- Sally Beamish’s Seavaigers, performed by Chris Stout (violin), Catriona McKay (harp) and the Scottish Ensemble ·
- Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, from the album for The sinking of the Titanic (1975)
Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flute) and Chris Stone (violin).
Red Note Ensemble: Tom Hankey (viola), Jackie Shave (violin 1), Kathy Shave (violin 2) and Robert Irvine (cello).