Heavenly musical tribute

Celestial magic as ensemble takes to the open air, writes Janet Wilson

The Canadian baroque music group, Tafelmusik, thrilled its capacity Canberra audience not only with its playing of early music but also with the amazing images of space projected on to a screen at the back of the Llewellyn Hall stage.

Now, from Canberra's own Griffyn Ensemble, there's the chance to see celestial magic again at a concert on Friday, March 30. But this time the unique entertainment will be in the open, under a mantle of stars above the burnt out Yale-Columbia Ruin at Mt Stromlo Observatory as the ensemble plays contemporary music.

Members of the Griffyn Ensemble Kiri Sollis, Wyana O?Keeffe, Carly Brown, and Michael Sollis.
Members of the Griffyn Ensemble Kiri Sollis, Wyana O?Keeffe, Carly Brown, and Michael Sollis. Photo: Supplied by Lindi Heap

And this is special music indeed: a work called Southern Sky by the Estonian composer, Urmas Sisask, who, as he travelled around Australia in the 1990s, visiting observatories and watching Aboriginal rituals, was inspired to write about the wonder of the heavens viewed from the southern hemisphere.

Part of this work was actually written at Mt Stromlo as it existed before the horrific 2003 firestorm reduced the observatory to rubble. By an eerie coincidence, Sisask had performed the composition in Estonia just before the firestorm and had dedicated it to the people of Canberra. Although the work has been performed by pianists across the world, remarkably, it has not been performed before in Australia.

"It's uncanny," Michael Sollis, director of Griffyn Ensemble, says. "One movement is about bushfire and about the Aboriginal belief that fire can have a cleansing effect. After I met Urmas in Estonia last year and heard his story I wanted to organise a performance in the ruins of Mt Stromlo as a tribute both to the composer and to the observatory that inspired him."

Joining the ensemble will be Fred Watson, astronomer in charge of the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Coonabarabran and well known for his talks on ABC Radio and his books, including Why is Uranus Upside Down? and Stargazer – the Life and Times of the Telescope. He'll speak between each movement of Southern Sky, pointing out constellations, stars and other features of the night sky.

"Southern Sky draws on Sisask's unique style – part minimalist, part impressionist, with a bit of pop music thrown in – typical of the stylistic freedom that is characteristic of Estonian music," Sollis says. "The piece suits us, with lots of upper register so our arrangement from the original piano composition fits very well. And we have a new toy: a five-string acoustic bass guitar – a good substitute for the piano as we wanted a bit more bass sound."

And doesn't a celestial atmosphere demand the sound of the harp?

Indeed. And Meriel Owen will play hers as well as the vibraphone and glockenspiel. "You can create a very ethereal sound by drawing the bow of a double bass across the keys of the vibraphone," Sollis says. "It has to be a double bass bow – a violin bow is too small."

Another new toy for Sollis is a Smartphone. "It'll find formations in the night sky if you point it upwards," he says enthusiastically. "I've learnt such a lot about mythology from researching star formations."

The other Griffyn Ensemble members will all be there to take part in this exciting concert: flautist Kiri Sollis, horn player Carly Brown, soprano Susan Ellis and newly weds Matthew O'Keeffe, clarinet, and Mrs O'Keeffe, formerly Wyana Etherington, percussion.

Scope Mt Stromlo cafe will be open from 5pm for drinks and dinner service or you can bring your own picnic and watch the sun set over the Brindabella Ranges. Sollis reminds you to dress warmly for the outside venue.

Should the weather be unco-operative, the concert will take place inside.

The Griffyn Ensemble with astronomer Fred Watson presents Southern Sky at Mt Stromlo Observatory at 7.30pm, Friday, March 30. Tickets: griffyn.iwannaticket.com.au

Scope cafe reservations: 6162 2388 scopemountstromlo.com.au.