‘Wonderfully chaotic’ is the phrase that sprung to mind listening to this new CD from Hammerings Records. Presented are four of Alan Holley’s works – Doppler’s Web (2005) performed by the Sydney Symphony with Paul Goodchild as soloist and Simone Young conducting, Chamber Symphony (2003) performed by The Gallery Players (a group founded by Holley, performing under the baton of Holley himself), A Line of Stars (2007) performed by the SSO with conductor Hubert Soudant, and finally The Winged Viola (2004) performed by The Gallery Players, again conducted by Holley. This collection is then a well-balanced presentation of Holley’s compositions for orchestra with and without a soloist.
Presented as the feature work of the CD, Doppler’s Web showcases wonderfully the talent of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and especially that of Associate Principal trumpet Paul Goodchild, for whom the piece was written. I remember attending the premiere of this work in 2005, and the feeling of awe I experienced then was rekindled listening to the recording. Goodchild’s mastery of the trumpet is on full display in this challenging work, inspired by the Doppler Effect – the change in pitch of a note as it approaches and then moves past you. This effect is explored throughout the work, being passed through the various sections of the orchestra. The first movement Sound Shift presents almost as a battle between the trumpet and the orchestra, with the trumpet line initially seeming subdued by the sheer volume of constant moving texture coming from the rest of the orchestra, but then triumphing over the shifting soundscape for brief pockets of time. This all builds to a single note as orchestra and soloist are in unison. The second movement Aria is calmer, allowing Goodchild’s amazing tone to take center stage. The movement lulls the listener, providing a period of musical respite in preparation for the tension filled but thrilling and aptly named third movement Spinning, in which the solo trumpet line revels in musical abandon interspersed with periods of great technical control, weaving throughout the sound of the rest of the orchestra and speeding towards the huge, fitting culmination of this twenty minute work.
Chamber Symphony comprises four movements varying in length from three to ten minutes. Each movement is different in character, like a set of snapshots of the different sound worlds that can be produced within a group such as The Gallery Players. Movement one begins with a slower, softer, almost playful, passage focusing on the strings and woodwinds, that gets hijacked by the more menacing low brass and lower string sections before ending in an abrupt, almost violent dischord and unison rhythmic patterns. Movement two explores the various sound worlds achieved through combinations of instruments, ending in a plaintive appeal from the strings. Movement three starts with a solo horn call, interrupted periodically by woodwinds and strings who then settle into a constant rhythm underneath the solo horn. The movement transitions through periods of other solo lines breaking through the horn melody. As Holley notes:
“the French horn seeks to control events, while other instruments gently intrude to change the direction of the musical argument.”
The fourth movement rounds out the work as the fastest and most rhythmically active movement of the four.
The shortest of works on the CD at just under twelve minutes, A Line of Stars was written to showcase the talents of the musicians of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and inspired by the brilliance of a night sky. The result is a cornucopia of musical fragments and timbres, presented in three sections in such a way as to ensure the listener is never complacent in their listening- there is constantly a new rhythm, timbre, texture or melodic fragment to pay attention to. A particular tone that is lovely to hear come through is that of the flugelhorn, which emerges in the last section of the piece (singled out by Holley in his liner notes). Holley specifically mentions the song of the butcherbird as an influence on this work, but throughout there are passages suggestive of bird song and flight, an element that Holley is well known for.
The Winged Viola is an excellent choice to bookend the CD. Presented in five movements and running for thirteen minutes, this work showcases the brilliant playing of Esther van Stralen, for whom the piece was written. Being a trumpet player, and not having listened particularly to works featuring the viola, I was enchanted by the dexterity of van Stralen, the technical ability displayed and the rich tone of the viola- especially in its lower register. The piece begins with a solo passage from the viola, immediately ensnaring the listener. The title suggests the presence of the bird motifs for which Holley is known, and the work does not disappoint- some passages of the work connote a frenzied whirl of birds in flight, others a single bird hopping and darting around. The middle movement is especially wonderful, a one minute solo movement that leaves the listener wanting more, and really displays the beautiful tone colour of the viola. The final movement is at times single line- a melody that to me sounds inquisitive- and at others a glorious whirlwind of sound.
The liner notes are well written and enhance the listening experience, giving insight into the inspiration for the works and some of what goes into Alan Holley’s compositional process. Overall, an intense listening experience- wonderfully chaotic, musically inspiring, a showcase of the talents of some fantastic musicians and a wonderful collection of Alan Holley’s compositions.
Alan Holley | Doppler’s Web; Paul Goodchild and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, from Hammerings Records. The CD can be purchased on Kookaburra Records