Sydney Town Hall was absolutely packed to the rafters on Friday night and the excitement was palpable, as the crowd eventually found their seats and settled in for what promised to be a terrific night of music presented by The Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I, like most others I imagine, was there primarily to hear Paul Stanhope’s Jandamarra: Sing for the Country (Ngalanybarra Muwayi.u), a dramatic cantata originally commissioned and presented in 2014 by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but also on the program was Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and the world premiere of Oliver Beard’s The Drake Equation, winner of the 2019 Conservatorium Composition Division Student Competition.
The first half of the program was performed passionately and skilfully by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Roger Benedict. From its massive, suspense-filled opening through furiously fast bowings that literally danced between the different string sections, to the still reflection of the final bars, the Britten was superbly performed by this very capable orchestra.
Oliver Beard’s The Drake Equation
Inspired by its namesake, an equation devised for the first SETI (search for extra-terrestrial life) conference which (to paraphrase the program notes) is used to estimate the chance of finding intelligent life in the universe. Beard’s words sum up his work perfectly,
“My piece seeks to represent this eternal question of ‘are we alone?’ in a musical form. I hope it conveys a sense of wonder at the expanse of the natural world in an air of excitement at our place within it.”
This was exactly how I felt listening to this beautifully crafted composition. In my mind this music took me by the hand skipping through space, contemplating the intense expanse of the Milky Way with a rich soaring full orchestral sound, including thrumming percussion, and then dropped me into a vast nothingness with a single viola solo line. In the final bars as two pulsing notes of a harp rang out, I imagined being hypnotised by the ever blinking lights of a satellite, constantly and forever searching. Intense and beautiful. I look forward to hearing more from this talented young composer.
Paul Stanhope’s Jandamarra: Sing for the Country
In the second half, this excellent orchestra was joined by hundreds of equally excellent young voices from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music Choir and Chamber Choir, The Sydney Children’s Choir and Young Men’s Choir, and VOX, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ youth ensemble, all conducted by Elizabeth Scott. These in turn were joined by the Yilimbirri Ensemble, a group of Indigenous dancers, singers and musicians, plus numerous soloists and narrators all of whom contributed in their own way to a truly extraordinary piece of dramatic story telling for our time and place.
The story caught my attention from the start, when two women, one dressed in kangaroo skins and one in Victorian era skirts, deliberately placed at opposite ends of the stage, begin to reminisce about their sons, who it quickly becomes apparent are friends… and there it begins.
This is the story of Jandamarra, a historical figure, who, in the late 1800’s, led a guerilla war against European settlers in West Australia’s Kimberley region and whose story has all the hallmarks of Greek tragedy. He is a conflicted character torn between two worlds; the white settlers he grew up with and that of his own people. He worked for the police as a tracker, but after helping to capture and imprison some of his own community’s elders, he is forced to question his allegiance to the European settlers. By turning on the police, he made a choice that would decide his fate, and elevate him to the status of folk hero. Jandamarra was only 24 when he was finally captured and killed, somewhat poignantly by another aboriginal tracker, but his legacy has become an important one for the Bunuba people, and now, I think, as a result of this stunning work, for all Australians.
The 14 sections of the piece cover a vast array of soundscapes, from soloists to a full orchestral and choral sound and traditional music from the Kimberly. Jandamarra’s story is woven together with story of the junba, which tells of the journey of a creator serpent who has become displaced from his home. “There is the narrative of Jandamarra, the anti-hero who becomes a sacrifice,” said Stanhope in his 2014 interview with Nick Galvin from the Sydney Morning Herald, “But there is also that extra metaphorical layer of singing home the snake. And healing the land… This sense of healing and how each of us can be engaged in that process is a nice thing to dwell upon.”
The action in this masterful work ranged all over the stage and into the orchestra, like a mini-opera. From the bullroarers calling us to attention at the opening to the final reflective song being passed from choir to choir, it explored a little known part of Australian history and culture in a respectful way, and, I thought, from equal perspectives of the Indigenous people and white settlers. Everything about this performance had me glued to the edge of my seat – the epic tale, the performances, the libretto, the musicians, choirs and soloists. Of course, it received a well-deserved exuberant standing ovation!