Old and new string quartets and Diggers' Requiem all impress
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Old and new string quartets and Diggers' Requiem all impress

Australian String Quartet: Close Quarters concert at the Nishi Gallery, New Acton, Saturday October 6 and Schubert, Ledger, Shostakovich at the Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia, Sunday October 7. The Diggers' Requiem, Various artists, Llewellyn Hall, Australian National University, Saturday, October 6.

Chris Latham's <i>Diggers' Requiem</i> was solemnly impressive.

Chris Latham's Diggers' Requiem was solemnly impressive.

Tbe Diggers' Requiem was an impressive, exceptionally well presented tribute to the fallen. Chris Latham is to be congratulated for reminding the world of the creative flame that flickered on in the composers and musicians who served on the battlefields in World War I - a flame that lives on beyond their deaths.

The collaborative nature of the work was a powerful testament to the kind of creative achievement that can be achieved through artistic communion: the direct opposite of the kind of results of war. (by the newly formed Australian War Memorial Orchestra and Choir with the Band of the Royal Military College, Duntroon as well as 28 young artists selected from across Australia with French or German ancestry or World War I family connections, together with seven Australian and international soloists).

No matter that this was a conflict from 100 years ago, the message of those composers and musicians who died remains strong in the voices of the Australian contemporary composers: this kind of suffering and destruction should never happen again.

I wish that there had been specific reference to ambulance workers, the medical corps and to women serving in the field – this was a noticeable omission.

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The most striking pieces were Nigel Westlake’s and Graham Koehene’s settings of Pie Jesu.

In Latham's finale the the lone piper and the ringing of the bells a total of 62,000 times to represent the Australian dead provided the emotional climax and epitomised the reverence with which the work was performed. The soloists were all impeccable.

The Australian String Quartet gave two recitals either side of The Digger’s Requiem.

It was serendipitous to have the ASQ perform before and after the impressively solemn Requiem as an affirmation of the regenerative process alive and well in Australian music making. Blair Harris was guest cellist with the ASQ while Sharon Grigoryan is on maternity leave.

Saturday’s concert in the Nishi Gallery was part of an ASQ series of performances in smaller, unconventional spaces with shorter recitals to give audiences a series of tasty musical morsels in an informal atmosphere.

Two movements from Philip Glass’s third string quartet were the perfect opening for the concert – a well- synchronised unity of playing creating rhythmic rippling sound patterns. I enjoyed Harris’s sympathetic interpretation, making the cello line both anchored pulse and a reflection of the upper parts. Often the bass line sounds clunky in Glass performances, labouring the modulations that should unfold organically. Not so this time.

The Australian String Quartet was particularly impressive in the Schubert and James Ledger works. 

The Australian String Quartet was particularly impressive in the Schubert and James Ledger works. 

The last movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No 1 opened with a dazzling entry from Dale Barltrop to develop with rhythmic precision, sparkling passages and an altogether joyous interpretation. We next had a glimpse of the up-coming partnership between the ASQ and Sydney Dance Company with their version of Bryce Dessner’s composition that will accompany choreography for Rafael Bonachela’s Frame of Mind later this month. This intense, strident, densely notated work resonates with the anxiety and trauma of the refugee journey experienced by Dessner’s mother.

Interestingly, the Saturday performance of the second movement of Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet was not as convincing as the complete version of the quartet performed on Sunday. Perhaps the contrast with the newer compositions was too stark, and the single movement too short for Schubert to assert himself. A stellar performance of the second movement of Shostakovich’s Quartet No 10, Allegro Furioso, encapsulated the agony and anger at the heart of the composer’s work and made a sensational conclusion.

Sunday’s concert opened with Schubert’s Quartet No 13, and it was a joy to follow the composer’s thought process through the entire work. Harris’s clean approach to the cello line kept all traces of sentimentality at bay, assisting the other instrumental parts to evoke the happy memories and fear of death reflected in Schubert’s score. Adele Conlin joined the ensemble in the capacity of sound engineer for James Ledger’s electroacoustic String Quartet #2: "The Distortion Mirror" – my personal favourite.

Consisting of four movements, the quartet cleverly integrates minimalist motifs and electronic processes such as looping and granular synthesis to create a mesmerising, reflective sound world. There were even some inter-textual references to Peter Sculthorpe’s iconic seagull motifs. The fourth movement, Science and Religion, to me, had all the delicate beauty of a late summer afternoon, with sounds of crickets, frogs and swarming bees creating a hypnotic climax. I liked the way Conlin was off-stage and yet magically and immediately contributed to the performance. I look forward to hearing the ASQ explore this genre further.