Dreaming a communal future

26 July 2021

A collaboration between two orchestras and Noongar soloists heralds a new era for the classical music industry, writes Rosalind Appleby

Perth Festival, West Australian Symphony Orchestra and WA Youth Orchestra, ‘Dreams of Place’ ·
Perth Concert Hall, 25 July 2021 ·

“From listening to this I hope you will understand why we Aboriginal people sing to the land, and the way she holds us, and you also,” Barrie McGuire explained from the stage of the Perth Concert Hall. 

He went on to sing three Noongar songs “from when the world was soft” arranged for full symphony orchestra by Iain Grandage.

It was the beginning of a ground-breaking orchestral concert, the first in the history of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra to feature Noongar artists as soloists and composers. (The concert was originally scheduled as part of the 2021 Perth Festival, but was postponed to July when the Festival was interrupted by a COVID lockdown.)

Australia’s classical music world has been slow to embrace cultural diversity, but the floodgates seem finally to be opening. Later this year WASO will perform Yorta Yorta composer Deborah Cheetham’s Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace, and in October the West Australian Opera will premiere the first Noongar language opera Koolbardi wer Wardong by Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse. Connecting classical artists with WA’s most ancient musical culture is not a new concept – the path was carved decades earlier by grassroots organisations such as Tura with their collaborations with artists like Steve Pigram (Crossing Roper Bar, 2008) – but I hope this is the beginning of the “new normal” for our classical music institutions.

A Noongar man sings in front of an orchestra
Barry McGuire sings ‘Three Songs’ with the WA Symphony and WA Youth Orchestras. Photo supplied

The concert broke new ground in another way too; half of the orchestra was made up of members from the WA Youth Orchestra, playing side by side with their industry mentors. The concert marks the beginning of a three-year partnership with WAYO to build pathways for talented local musicians.

On multiple levels there was a sense of building a communal future. And while it wasn’t quite utopia, it was certainly a place I want to experience again and again.

McGuire’s Three Songs tells the ancient Noongar stories of a boy in a whale, two men coming out of the sky and the trapdoor spider. They are stories unique to the Perth area, places now known as Rottnest and King’s Park, but McGuire gives them a universal significance; this is a mythology that welcomes every person “no matter what you look like”.

Grandage’s orchestral accompaniment encased each kernel of story like a supportive shell. Echoes of Copland’s open harmonies and Sibelius’ hymn-like melodies (signposts to works featured later in the program) were subsumed into the compelling energy of the stories. The work built with swooping explosive phrases and under Grandage’s conducting the musicians unleashed a ferocious energy. A brief haunting passage built into an exhilarating fanfare and all too soon it was over. Throughout it all McGuire was utterly compelling, singing with a sweetness that had a grainy edge. His immaculate synergy with the orchestra made it seem he’d been singing with a 90-piece ensemble his whole life.

The concert continued with three works from the classical canon exploring a sense of “place”. Sibelius’ Finlandia has been adopted by many countries as a song of nationalistic fervour since the composer wrote it to capture the sentiment of the Finnish people under Russian oppression. The tone poem had a cool stateliness under the baton of WASO’s Assistant Conductor Thaddeus Huang (who conducted the remainder of the program). A Suite from Copland’s rarely performed opera The Tender Land was an interesting curiosity evoking the cinematic world of early Westerns. The most successful was the Suite from Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Firebird, given a thrilling performance by the conglomerate orchestra. The stealthy opening, the whirling woodwind solos and the pompous grandeur of the electrifying finale was like a picture postcard from exotic Russia.

I’m not entirely sure they were the right works for this program however. The sense of place in these pieces felt remote, like it was someone else’s story. Perhaps works by Australian composers such as Sculthorpe, Edwards or Kats-Chernin would’ve provided a more coherent program, and a deeper connection for the audience.

The sense of anticipation returned when Bibbulmun woman Della Rae Morrison appeared on stage to sing Boodja Koorndarminy (Dream of Country). Her enigmatic poetry, sung with a gentle keening, wove a dreamy path past a lone tree, the moon, rocks, a river and a Mother birthing new seeds. Four backing vocalists added spinetingling harmonies and the orchestra (arranged by Grandage) refracted snippets of melody, underpinned by the wooden tapping of the marimba. The song swelled into a rock ballad, and McGuire added his vocals over the top, in Noongar language. It was a spinetingling synthesis of the ancient and the new. A musical enactment of a cultural possibility. “Dreamin, dreamin,” they sang, “our new dreamin”.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s next concert will be the families concert ‘Stan and Mabel and the Race for Space’ on 8 August 2021.

Pictured top: Della Rae Morrison is joined by backing vocalists forBoodja Koorndarminy (Dream of Country)‘. Photo supplied

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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