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Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Musical worlds collide

17 February 2020

‘Quartet & Country’ captivates Bourby Webster with its brilliant combination of music from different times and places.

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Review: Australian String Quartet, William Barton, Stephen Pigram, ‘Quartet & Country’ ·
Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia, 15 and 16 February 2020 ·
Review by Bourby Webster ·

“Chamber music lends itself to revealing the innermost thoughts of composers – works of intimacy and beauty invite contemplation.” Perth Festival director Iain Grandage’s words in the program introducing the festival’s Chamber Music Weekend framed my expectation as I entered Winthrop Hall on Saturday for the second of four concerts in the “Quartet & Country” series. Each concert programmed work by an Indigenous performer alongside one, or two, of Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets – there were six over four concerts in two days – played by the Australian String Quartet (ASQ).

It has long been a passion of mine to put works of contrasting genres on the same program. I believe modern audiences welcome different aural textures and emotions as one kind of work is juxtaposed with another, yet the classical world has generally approached this with caution. So I was full of anticipation about what “Quartet & Country” would inspire by pairing brilliant Indigenous composers with Beethoven, their works performed alongside the remarkable Opus 18 quartets. Would there be a common thread? Would we feel a connection between music from such different worlds, or would it be an unbridgeable canyon?

Before I got my answer, I was absolutely hit to my core by the opening of the first piece: William Barton’s “Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand”. The ASQ were on stage, playing eerie harmonics that floated on the air, then, as if from another world, a powerful cry was heard. William Barton began singing at the hall’s entrance and slowly made his way to the central stage, where he continued to sing before taking to the didgeridoo.

The hairs on my arms stood on end for the entire performance. Barton’s voice was remarkable, his legendary didgeridoo playing awe-inspiring. The string parts, written by Grandage, explored every kind of texture to evoke this energy as well as creating mental images of open spaces, empty plains, expansive oceans. I was totally captivated.

The standing ovation for this piece could have marked the end of the concert, yet we still had two Beethoven quartets to go. And this is where the magic happened.

The Australian String Quartet. Photo: Jacqui Way

I had expected a jolt, a sudden coming down to earth from the spiritual nature of the first work, not least because the ASQ had been amplified for Barton but removed their microphones for the Beethoven. Yet as the first notes of Beethoven, perfectly played, escaped from the violin, they, too, seemed taken from the air. I was immersed in the Beethoven within seconds, inspired by what had gone before, yet captivated by what I was now hearing.

The beauty of the slow movement in the Quartet in D Major, Op.18 No.3 was stunning. The ASQ excelled in the slow movements of both quartets with an absolute precision of balance, tension and tenderness.

I returned on Sunday for Stephen Pigram, whose songs and stories book-ended the ASQ’s performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Major, Op.18 No.4. The folksong vibe of Pigram’s works had a warmth and familiarity that were different from the drama and poignancy of Barton the day before, in part because he sometimes sang in English. Again, both genres felt completely comfortable alongside one another – the performances were sublime.

The standing ovations for both concerts proved I was not alone in enjoying the old alongside the new; European alongside Australian; songs alongside instrumental works. They were special performances celebrating two very different cultures. I only wish I could have made all four performances of “Quartet & Country”.
Grandage understands perfectly that chamber music – “works … that invite contemplation” – is capable of evoking greater understanding when such contrasting works are programmed together, and that holds a message for all of us.

Pictured top: Queensland composer and didgeridoo exponent William Barton. Photo: Keith Saunders

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the Founder and CEO of Perth Symphony Orchestra one of WA’s newest and fastest growing arts companies. She is a graduate of Oxford University in Music and the Royal College of Music and is a professional violist, lecturer, presenter, and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

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