The Griffyns … wah! wah! wah!

Last weekend was the last Griffyns concert of the year – and what a delight it was (except for the wah! moment). It was their 10th anniversary concert and they called it Griffyns Go Wilder. Knowing the Griffyns, as you do by now if you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that that could mean anything but in fact it meant, in its literal meaning anyhow, that the concert would be devoted to the music of the 20th century American composer, Alec Wilder.

Instruments set up before concert

Setting up before the concert

What a great choice it was for an end-of-year-anniversary concert. They have performed Wilder before. I particularly remember soprano Susan Ellis doing a lively, audience-engaging rendition of “Sea fugue mama” in 2013, and I remember being very sad about having to miss their American songbook concert in 2010. Anyhow, it was a great choice because Wilder’s music is versatile, including “classic” chamber work, film music and jazz-influenced pieces. The music the Griffyns chose for this concert had a light end-of-year touch, while also being musically varied.

The concert took place in their “home”, the Belconnen Arts Centre. The room was set up with tables which were decorated with past programs (plus some nibbles to go with drinks we could buy at the bar – and we did!) It was a delightful touch, giving the concert an intimate friendly feel, which their concerts tend to have anyhow. To match the setting, the program was organised into three courses: Entree, Mains and Desserts.

And so the concert started with something a little serious, though not heavily so, Wilder’s Air for Flute and Strings, with Kiri Sollis on flute supported by Holly Downes (double bass), Michael Sollis (mandolin), Chris Stone (violin) and Laura Tanata (harp). A perfect start because Kiri is always mesmerising to watch and hear.

We then moved onto Mains, a selection of jazz-influenced pieces from Wilder’s octets, with wonderful titles like “Her old man was suspicious”, “The amorous poltergeist” and “Neurotic goldfish”. Those of us not in the know were surprised that some of these pieces had been conducted by none other than Frank Sinatra. The things you learn at a Griffyns concert! Anyhow, Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined the ensemble for the Mains, as did Sally Greenaway playing the Canberra School of Music’s beautiful Australian-made harpsichord. They provided the instrumental depth appropriate for these mostly jazz-influenced selections. Not particularly demanding. Just perfect dinner music.

Desserts were something again, but before it the Griffyns announced they were giving us a present for their anniversary. It appeared – a big gift-wrapped parcel – and what (or who, more to the point) was inside, but the always-up-for-it Susan Ellis, complete with champagne glass and a bottle of bubbly. Move over Marilyn! (Why didn’t I get my camera out then!)

And then the final course started – with Susan Ellis leading off in a beautifully soulful rendition of “Blackberry winter”. And oh boy, by the middle of the week, did the opening words sound prophetic:

Blackberry winter comes without a warning
Just when you think that spring’s around to stay

This final course included two more songs, plus a duet, “Suite for flute and marimba”, with Kiri Sollis (flute) and Wyana O’Keeffe (marimba). We’ve seen these two play duets before. Their familiarity with each other always makes these performances special. The concert ended on a piece chosen by the audience, the song “Little Girl Blue”. (I can’t recollect what I voted for from the choices given but this was a very acceptable winner!)


Quartet performing John Gage's A story

Holly, second from right, performing John Gage

Before I get to “the wah!” moment, I’d like to share what the Griffyns nominated as their favourite memories from the last ten years (and I hope I’ve got this right):

  • Holly: her a cappella debut with John Gage’s “A story” (The Lost Mapmaker, 2014)
  • Matthew: the Pacific Islands concert, 2008, at the NGA, and a piece called “Buwaya (and the crocodile weeps)”
  • Kiri: being asked to play the recorder which she hadn’t done before, and having to play the whole range of recorders
  • Laura: playing in the dark for the Northern Lights concert, 2015, particularly the whale song piece.
  • Wyana: playing the Southern Sky concert, 2013, in the damaged telescope on Mt Stromlo (she snuck in a second choice too, but I’m only giving her one here!)
  • Susan: all the collaborators they’ve worked with over the years (musicians, dancers, to artists and scientists)
  • Chris: the discussions about Susan’s dramatic entrances!
  • Michael: doing the Northern Lights tour in 2014 with astronomer Fred Smith, and discovering that two Griffyn Ensemble subscribers, were, quite coincidentally, on the same tour. “Special”, he said.

For me, there have been many, many highlights. A favourite piece has been Gorecki’s “Goodnight” (performed at least twice by Kiri Sollis, Laura Tanata and Susan Ellis). It’s a beautiful work. And I’ve loved so many concerts that it feels almost a betrayal to nominate one, because others keep popping into my head, but I’m going to say it anyhow, the Behind Bars concert (2012). To hear music composed in POW and Concentration camps really was something else.

… and now, THE WAH!

I was suspicious, and anxious, before the concert that maybe there wasn’t going to be a 2017 season. We’d heard no mention, and their promotion for this last concert did not include the usual reference to a next season announcement. And so it turned out to be. As Michael explained, the Griffyns, in the age-old Australian tradition, would be taking six months long service leave in the first half of 2017. Fair enough, I suppose. They deserve it. Not only have they worked darned hard to present over 200 excitingly diverse and innovative concerts since 2007, but now most of the members no longer live in Canberra. Putting on these concerts is quite a strategic challenge.

But, all is not lost. They will be back in the second half of the year with a new idea, a five-day Griffyn Ensemble Festival. Save the date – 30 August to 3 September – they said. We have.

Meanwhile, thanks for the memories …

Other versions on YouTube of some of the music:

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flutes) and Chris Stone (violin) with past members Matthew O’Keeffe (clarinets) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion), and special guest Sally Greenaway (harpsichord).

2 thoughts on “The Griffyns … wah! wah! wah!

  1. “Neurotic Goldfish,” I love it! Best musical title ever. At least they are just having a break and aren’t going to be gone for good. Something to look forward to in August!

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