Two out of three of the composers presented in this concert were in the audience, but the absent Beethoven had a good excuse.
Moya Henderson’s Kudikynah Cave showed the entrancing magic of the place
Moya Henderson’s piece, “Kudikynah Cave” was commissioned by the Petra String Quartet and first performed in 1991. The work is inspired by a spectacular cave, then recently discovered, in the remote lower reaches of Tasmania’s Franklin River; an aboriginal sacred site.
Henderson’s composition and the Acacia’s performance of it concentrate not on the grandeur, but rather on the entrancing magic of the place. Gentle parallel rocking motions in the upper strings evoke beauty and sensuality. Delicately played shimmering passages were redolent of the fireflies at the site. This performance achieved the holy grail of contemporary Australian music; being at one with the landscape with a strong sense of place, both physical and cultural. The experience for the audience too was significantly enhance by the gorgeous view of Sydney harbour in the early evening, through the glass wall behind the Quartet. A sense of sacredness and place right there.
Beethoven’s The Harp was delicately played
“The Harp” quartet by the absent composer (Op 74, No 10) is a masterful middle period quartet written around the time of the Third Symphony, also in the sonorous key of E flat. There is something seminal in E flat major, it seems to emerge from the earth; think of the opening of Wagner’s Ring where the earth is created out of the waters of the Rhine. This quartet sits appropriately next to Henderson’s “landscape” work in the program.
The quartet earns its name from the pizzicato sections in the first movement where arpeggio passages are shared between the instruments.
We were treated to delicately played music and a clarity where every “voice” of the quartet is clearly heard at all times. Individuality of voice can however be a double edged sword. There were passages where I would have liked that thick sound that Central European quartets often achieve in homophonic passages, where the whole quartet sounds like a single instrument. We got some glimpses of this in the second and third movements.
I love the thoughtfulness of this quartet’s playing. Vibrato for example was only applied where the music required it. I was impressed by the cellist Anna Martin-Scrase’s intelligent phrasing and articulation. Especially in passages where the cello had the lead, it seemed the whole quartet rose to the occasion.
Nicolas Vines’ Law of the Tongue changed the view of the harbour to be black and menacing
The “harpoon” of the concert title comes in with Nicolas Vines’ programmatic piece which received its world premier at the Brisbane performance of this program a few weeks ago. This work is really the centrepiece of the program.
The story behind the work is both fascinating and truly gruesome. First the aboriginal and later the European whalers in Eden on the South coast of NSW worked together with orca killer whales to herd and trap baleen whales. The baleen where then slaughtered by the whalers and left in the water overnight for the orcas to have their way with them, eating only the choice lips and tongues. The remaining carcass was then brought ashore for human processing. Hence the title of the piece – the “Law of the Tongue.”
The first movement is a kind of broken corroboree dance, performed around fires on the beach, where orcas are enticed to the hunt. Some special string techniques are interesting here, like the viola’s “col legno” (playing by hitting the strings with the back of the bow), evocative of the aboriginal tap sticks.
The second movement is the most beautiful. It is based on Vines’ transcription of whale songs; the baleen rather than the orcas I suspect! This movement begins gently with glissandos both at the top and bottom of the ranges of the instruments. But the piece turns with the roundup by the orcas where the song become tinged with threat and fear. An Irish jig-type tune cuts in as the whalers do their business harpooning of the baleen. The movement finishes with doleful, mournful whale songs cut short by the vicious stroke of the final kill.
The third movement tells of the frenzied feeding of the orcas on the dead baleen; the Acacia really portrayed the animal viciousness well here.
The orcas were considered brothers by the aborigines and whalers, and we hear their song in the last movement; a totally different matter to what we heard from the baleen in the second. Effects like twanging strings against the finger board and rapid tremolos seemed to show the men at work cutting up the carcasses for commercial purposes. It seems the music is tinged with trouble and moral ambivalence. At least I hoped that is what it was; from our modern standpoint this all seems an abomination. While the story is fascinating, I have considerable reservations about even presenting it. If this were a movie one might imagine some elements of the audience cheering with glee. Personally I feel revulsion.
Again here we have another connection to the landscape and our early history, but it is of another kind all together. Reflecting as this piece was played, it is strange how my view of the harbour changed. Its waters now seemed black and menacing.
Contemporary Australian music is Acacia Quartet’s raison d’être
The Acacia Quartet really shines in this contemporary Australian music; it is their raison d’être. There was never a dull moment, my attention was riveted at all times. They are to be congratulated on a most engaging concert.