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25 August 2016

Paul Stanhope at Townsville - a report from AFCM

Stanhope's <em>Three Lorca Songs</em> in Townsville: Valda Wilson (soprano), Indira Koch (violin), Wolfgang-Emanuel Schmidt (cello), Timothy Young (piano) Image: Stanhope's Three Lorca Songs in Townsville: Valda Wilson (soprano), Indira Koch (violin), Wolfgang-Emanuel Schmidt (cello), Timothy Young (piano)  

Paul Stanhope was the composer in residence at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville this winter. Malcolm Gillies went to the concerts and interviewed him for Resonate in his role as the festival's writer in residence.

Unlike many festivals these days, the Australian Festival of Chamber Music still often engages a composer in residence. Having lived outside Australia now for a decade, I was particularly keen to hear more of Paul Stanhope, who admirably filled the festival's in-residence role in exposing, conducting or commentating on his recent works. Like the newly minted Sydney International Piano Competition winner, Andrey Gugnin, who made an important contribution to the Festival, Stanhope, too, sometimes rattled the cage of expectation, but as producer rather than interpreter.

The Festival, over its nine days, presented six recent Stanhope works: Three Lorca Songs, including the premiere of what is now its first item, 'Song of the Moon', sung by Valda Wilson; Nephesh, a two-movement pairing of 'Prayer' and 'Dance' movements, played by the Goldner and Tinalley Quartets, with Kirsty McCahon on double bass, and conducted by Stanhope; Dolcissimo Usignolo, an arrangement of Monteverdi's madrigal, sung by Wilson with piano trio, followed by Stanhope's own original work of the same name, for piano trio led by Adam Chalabi; the short phoSpheric Variations, in a new version for flute and piano; and, finally, his String Quartet No. 3, performed by and dedicated to the festival's quartet in residence, the Goldners.

I asked Stanhope if he considered these works were representative of his life's work. He replied, 'reasonably representative', recognising long-term interests in Lorca, Monteverdi, Indigenous music, and vocal styles. Piers Lane, in his Concert Conversation with Stanhope before my interview with the composer, had gone a step further, probing the nature of Stanhope's musical influences: 'Are you always inspired by something extra-musical?' Stanhope had hesitated, before tentatively replying, 'Yes', but then added, 'you often need to know things that are extramusical to understand [my] music'. This seemed a fruitful avenue to pursue in interview with him on the following day, because his hesitation was well-based.

Take his own Dolcissimo Usignolo, in which 'half-recalled memories' of the Monteverdi madrigal form the motivic basis of much of the material. He described the Monteverdi as 'a kind of inspiration for more extensive compositional explorations', with any attributions to Monteverdi being increasingly blurred into Stanhope's own texture as the work progresses.

His dualistic soul-body Nephesh, the very title referring to ancient Hebrew liturgy, again plays with the extramusical in creative ways. Its first movement 'Prayer' is more musically contained in working out the expressive capabilities of its Sephardic chant inspiration; its second, 'Dance' movement, while also derived from some original chant materials, however then spins off into blues-like elaborations and rhythmic effusions, in celebration of the body.

But it was Stanhope's third string quartet that most effectively integrated his various views on influence, appropriation and, indeed, authorship. In interview he observed that the quartet's 'music still sounds like me... but the middle movement comes from Jandamarra', his dramatic cantata premiered by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2014. By this he means that the quartet's second movement entitled 'Dirrari Lament', reflects its use (with permission) of a Bunuba woman's lament, originally heard in Jandamarra, but now given a wider purpose of lament, for those (including Stanhope's teacher, Peter Sculthorpe) who had recently died.

I observed the close-to-narrative nature of Stanhope's program notes to the piece, with strong emphasis upon verbs like 'inspire', 'describe' and 'suggest', and we discussed further what you 'need to know to understand' the piece. I asked whether this festival performance of the quartet will have accompanying images, because some images (by Sean Bacon, including one of a prison in the Windjana Gorge in the Kimberley region) were shown at the work's premiere in 2015. Would we see them at the Townsville performance? 'No', Stanhope replied; ' "I would prefer it now to be less definite and so without images'.

The quartet's performance on the final day of the festival was nothing short of electrifying. Despite not having images, there is a 1950s-like filmic quality to the first movement, 'Tracks and Traces'. This is partly because of the tight motivic techniques used, but also the employment of filmic 'fades' at section joins, and the neat dovetailing of textures. The second movement is mesmerising with its glistening, soft beginning (harmonics and glissandi), later growing in intensity - a slow surge then repose effected through a series of variations, its climax being an anguished section of high polyphony, later subsiding into the opening harmonics/glissandi texture. The third movement, 'River-run' is full of the blurblings of water, inspired by Kimberley waterways, according to Stanhope, suggesting 'a brighter future', 'not quite present, yet also possible'.

To my hearing, whether you follow its Indigenous, regional programe or not, this quartet is highly effective music. Its sustained Indigenous references are respectful and meaningful guides to the music, but the intramusical coherence is equally strong. As the enthusiastic audience in Townsville indicated, you can 'understand' this music with or without a detailed knowledge of its inspirations, appropriations, images and references - surely a sign of a great composition.

PS. Elena Kats-Chernin's Three Dancers, premiered as a chamber work at last year's festival (see this earlier article on Resonate), returned as a ballet this year, performed by five dancers from Dancenorth, an original commissioner of the work, in a new choreography by Lee Serle. In the meantime a Rambert choreography by Didy Veldman has been touring in Britain (more in this article). Kats-Chernin herself made a surprise cameo appearance at the 2016 festival's final concert, in presenting and playing Tropical Nights, commissioned from her by the festival to celebrate Piers Lane's ten years as the Festival's director.

Further links

Paul Stanhope - AMC profile

Australian Chamber Music Festival, Townsville (www.afcm.com.au)

Malcolm Gillies is a London-based musicologist. He attended this year's Australian Festival of Chamber Music as the festival's writer in residence.


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