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Of Magic and Madness

Sydney Conservatorium of Music presents the Verbrugghen Ensemble, in Verrbrugghen Hall, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Tuesday 4th October.

OF MAGIC AND MADNESS is the final concert of the inaugural season of the Verbrugghen Ensemble. The Ensemble is in residence at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It is made up of internationally acclaimed soloists and orchestral musicians, most of whom are faculty members of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It is Directed by Conductor, John Lynch.

This concert consisted of the presentation of work from the last half of the last century and a World Premiere by Australian composer, Matthew Hindson.

Firstly, the World Premiere of Australian composer, Matthew Hindson’s, THIS YEAR’S APOCALYPSE (2016). Mr Hindson has taken ideas of the ever present sense of contemporary world apocalypse and large scale disaster and shaped them musically. Intriguingly he says:

I have graphed the numbers of nuclear weapons on the planet combined with the number of HIV infections across the planet and converted the shape into a series of notes. This forms the basis of much of the harmony in the piece, the intention being that it may be suitably terrifying.

The work breaks straight into a bracing crash of urgent contemporary ‘noises’ and pursues that passion with a pattern using groups of instruments, beside the employment of the entire unit to transport us to an unsettling place of ‘jangle’ and to an uncomfortable meditation. There is an extraordinary virtuosic solo for the Horn, played by David Thompson, as well as a percussion interlude from Daryl Pratt, that drew attention to the thematics of Mr Hindson’s composition as well as to the gifts of those two performers. Says Mr Hindson: “The human race is still with us. And hopefully despite humanity’s compulsion with the possibility of ceasing to exist, we will continue.” Some of the madness of the concert’s title.

What followed was SEXTETO MISTICO, by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), a Brazilian composer. John Lynch, the Artistic Director of the Verbrugghen Ensemble tells us that Villa-Lobos’ “music is a rich tapestry drawing on influences from the traditional Western art music, popular and jazz styles (and) the native music of Brazil.” This work was first made in 1917, but became lost and was recreated from memory in 1955, by the composer, late in his career. It is we are told, “Unique within his output, the lovely combination of woodwind, string and percussion timbres creates an otherworldly soundscape.” This represents the ‘magic’ of the title of the concert – the qualities of the Brazilian jungle. The sextet included guest artist, Vladimir Gorbach, on guitar, along with Louise Johnson and her harp.

This year, British composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, died at the age of 81 after a remarkable and prolific contribution to the contemporary music world. I first came to notice his work on the soundtrack of Ken Russell’s 1971 film THE DEVILS, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s THE DEVILS OF LOUDON. His score was performed by his regular collaborators:The Fires of London (previously known as the Pierrot Players). I know of other works of the composer but not heard enough of them live, I think. So, I was enticed and excited to attend this performance of EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING. It is a sung monodrama on text by Australian poet Randolph Snow, based on the words of King George III. It premiered on 22 April, 1969.

At this concert, six instrumentalists and baritone, Simon Lobelson, created an unforgettable performance, staged and Directed by Kate Gaul. The vocal demands – range – made on the singer are huge and one was constantly astonished by the concentration and passionate vocal control that Mr Lobelson demonstrated whilst ‘throwing’ himself into a sustained and truthfully dramatic physical performance of this work of some 30 odd minutes of a man, a king, gone mad.

Making a dramatic appearance on the balconies around the Verbrugghen Hall and trailing down in a hospital period dressing gown with a late eighteenth century wig, the impact of the seven soliloquy-poems, sometimes transposed in sound into an hysterical ‘gibberish’ of madness, and at othertimes recited with empathetic clarity, one was gripped by a growing sympathy of sheer terror and compassion. The acting performance by Mr Lobelson was tremendous. I was amazed with the duet dance between the king and the flautist while she played (Emma Sholl), shocked when the ‘King’ snatched the violin from the player and brought to tears of a transcendent dramatic awe in the smashing of that instrument on the stage. (Music and man ‘smashed’.) The madness of King George III was delivered as grand tragedy with an intense human sadness, for the recognised frailties of being a human. The ensemble were brilliant in the virtuosity required to support the singer and one must compliment the violinist, Andrew Haverton, who looked on aghast as the ‘King’ smashed his instrument – extraordinarily convincing and, too, sustained.

Last year Ms Gaul Directed a performance of Australian Malcolm Williamsons’ ENGLISH ECCENTRICS (1964), for the Conservatorium, and, too, made a work of impact. A musical and dramatic impact, and as well, as with the presentation of EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING, a valuable historical impact. The Conservatorium of Music, bringing to our attention works of such rewarding experiencing.

The music selection by Verbrugghen Ensemble leader, John Lynch, was exemplary in its demands. There was only one performance – how lucky was I, were we, who saw and heard it on Tuesday evening.

With thanks.