Power music

Keith Gallasch

Rockhampton Gardens Symphony

Rockhampton Gardens Symphony

Rockhampton Gardens Symphony

In Brisbane

For 10 music-filled days I saw concerts and wrote and edited in the Brisbane Powerhouse, site for much of Lyndon Terracini’s 2001 Queensland Biennial Festival of Music (see interview, RT#43). It was an intense, always enjoyable and often revelatory experience—not only of unique music expertly played, but also of an artistic community celebrating what it loves to do and finding time to spend together. With Assistant Editor Jenny Speed and a team of Brisbane writers, most of them artists, RealTime produced reviews online and distributed print copies in the Powerhouse. Also now on our website are articles on the Biennial’s International Critics’ Symposium. A small selection from our QBFM articles, and excerpts from others, appear on these pages along with a list of all the reviews online.

Beyond the Powerhouse, the festival made Brisbane appearances at Southbank (a stunning, standing ovation-Turangalila-symphonie), City Hall (Anumadutchi, the Dutch percussion group with African guests ), Customs House (ELISION ensemble’s Spirit Weapons), St Mary’s (a packed out Critical Mass for the homeless and a rivetting Song Company recital) and, again at Southbank, the Stuart Series, an excellent set of twilight concerts working out the new Stuart grand piano (Lisa Moore, Paul Grabowsky and Michael Kieran Harvey brilliantly showcasing the instrument).

Across Queensland

Concerts were staged in Mackay, Townsville and Cooroy, and in Barcaldine, Rockhampton and Logan City workshops and events brought artists and communities together. In Logan City, in Queensland’s Bible belt, Terracini successfully introduced Sydney’s Cafe at the Gate of Salvation (in performance and workshop) and the Indigenous singer Rochelle Watson to an audience of thousands in a 7 hour celebration of song including some wildly received Christian rock’n’roll.

Terracini wanted to hold a festival that people in regional Queensland could feel connected to. He’s particularly proud the way participation worked so well in the remote western town of Barcaldine (home to the Tree of Knowledge, site of the famous 1891 shearer’s strike meetings and birthplace of the Australian Labor Party) where 200 townspeople made and played marimbas. Terracini said, “It’s one of those events where people will say ‘I was there.’ One of the reasons it worked well was because everyone wanted to work together. They came from everywhere in the Barcaldine community. They had a great relationship with Jacinta Foale and Mik Moore. Mik took all the workshops for making the marimbas and Jacinta taught them how to play and wrote a piece called Barcaldee. Now it’s their piece.

“We rehearsed in this huge space, the Workers’ Heritage Centre. I had to mould a huge cast into an ensemble and that happened very quickly in 2 rehearsals. Venáncio Mbande was there from Mozambique and the participants saw the marimbas he’d made and was playing…there was a fantastic bond.

“We closed off the street at 2am, built the stage—the whole thing was a huge logistical exercise. We asked David Thompson, a custodian of the country up there to speak first to welcome us all to country. He’s a descendant of the Aboriginal people who had lived there who were massacred. He’s gone back to live there. He came off stage and burst into tears, an extraordinary moment. Then the Mornington Island song men—freezing, painted up, in their head dresses, doing a terrific job—were singing festival to Queensland. And the sun came up and shone through the branches of the Tree of Knowledge. We’d timed it.

Anumadutchi came on and did the Barcaldine Suite written especially for the festival. The 200 players of the Barcaldine Big Marimba band were seated either side of the stage joining in and 1,500 people in the street were screaming and whistling—a wonderful atmosphere at 7.20 in the morning. And then the Barcaldine Big Marimba played Jacinta’s piece and one by Linsey Pollak, and then they played with Anumadutchi—a fantastic finale. Then we had a barbeque.

“Then we went on to Rockhampton. The gardens are beautiful. We had a number of stages, again with trees as a theme—a bamboo stage, a banyan stage and a hoop pine stage. Various Rockhampton ensembles played on the smaller stages so people could move through the gardens and hear concerts during the day. Thousands turned out. The Song Company performed on the massive hoop pine stage (we had to be able to get 400 people on it) in a kind of natural amphitheatre. At 4.45 Roland Peelman came on to conduct the premiere of Elena Kats-Chernin’s Rockhampton Gardens Symphony, a half hour choral symphony with the Rockhampton Concert Orchestra, marimba band, the City Brass Band, drum kit, 2 choirs and a tenor soloist from Rockhampton, Christopher Saunders—and a text by Queensland poet Mark Svendsen.

“At the end 5,000 people were on their feet. You don’t expect this in a garden. There was so much applause they had to play the last movement again and then the applause still went on. The players who were originally bemused by the music were now enamoured of it and they said would like to do more as a change from The Sound of Music. Normally you’d never get a standing ovation for this kind of work, but because it was theirs they were responding to new music, a new work, a world premiere. The town councillors took a risk on it and it paid off. The premiere got on to the front page of the Rockhampton Bulletin which called called it ‘a thriller of a symphony.’

“The contrast with the Federal government’s $200,000 Really Useful Company tour of Grease is disgraceful. If (Minister for the Arts) Richard Alston had seen these concerts…The lack of knowledge about what is happening to art and culture in regional Australia is appalling. If the Really Useful Company had to apply to the Australia Council for funding, they would never have qualified under the Council’s usual conditions.”

Terracini’s Biennial looked a success, even at its half way point when we met to talk. He was excited not only by the positive community response across Queensland, the standing ovations (“a new phenomenon here”), but also because, even though he wasn’t getting to sing, directing the festival “was like doing a show.” Despite the rather grim prospects for new music delineated in the accompanying International Critic’s Symposium, the festival’s audiences suggested a brighter picture. Though, as we all know, a festival can succeed where the year-round programming of new music can fail to engender anything other than small audiences comprising the usual appreciative suspects. Even so, Terracini’s adroit programming managed to satisfy diverse audiences without compromising the quality of the work, and suggests possible ways forward. My greatest pleasure came from being able to experience Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie and new or rarely heard works performed by Lisa Moore, Michael Kieran Harvey, the Australian Art Orchestra, Topology, ELISION ensemble and Orkest de Volharding. Let’s hope that in 2003, the Biennial will return with Terracini again at the helm.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 31

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001