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19 November 2008

Topology and Brophy

Brisbane // QLD // 05.10.2008

Gerard Brophy Image: Gerard Brophy  

I have to admit that I was surprised at every turn of this Topology concert. I arrived expecting the usual line-up but was instead greeted by new faces and instruments throughout the concert. Only three of the Topology quintet made it onstage (Christa Powell, Rob Davidson and John Babbage), outnumbered by an array of guest players on strings, percussion and oboe.

The program presented a stroll through the back catalogue of the chamber music of Brisbane-based composer Gerard Brophy. It was a journey out of Topology's comfort zone, in terms of genre as well as instrumentation, and just the beginning of a fascinating set.

I remember Gerard Brophy from my student days, sharing the corridors of the 'old' Conservatorium here in Brisbane. Looking back, I'm humbled to say that although I knew his name I don't think I ever heard any of his music. So for me this concert was somewhat personal, allowing me, and probably much of the audience, to hear a broad cross-section of Brophy's chamber music for the first time.

Brophy has long been a respected and very active figure in Australian music, and Queensland is proud that he calls Brisbane home. From this concert, I think it's safe to say that he is also proud to be a Queenslander, drawing musical inspiration from his surroundings. Perhaps not in a literal musical sense, as we've come to expect from such composers as Ross Edwards or Peter Sculthorpe, but, as Brophy himself tried to explain during a mid-concert interview with Rob Davidson, his is still very much a 'music of place'.

The tightly wound energy of We Bop (1995) opened the catalogue for the evening, with its directness of intent drawing us in to a rhythmic web between saxophone and vibraphone. It was perhaps a kind of musical foreplay, which led into the more subversive Sheer Nylon Dances. This work, for piano trio, was given sensitive treatment, although I often felt that the performers were somewhat disengaged from each other. It was interesting to note that the piano in this work was 'prepared' – with rubber wedges. The resulting, gentle 'plunkings' created a more homogenous blend with the strings than an 'unprepared' piano would have done. It gave the work a quirkiness that really worked with the overall aesthetic.

A Flor da Pele (1993) was a duo for violin and marimba. Again, the performers seemed to lack a sense of common purpose.

Brophy's latest piece – an oboe quintet – was given its first Queensland performance in this concert, and it won the crowd over decisively. Lyrical and richly harmonised with an abundance of clever layering of musical lines, it's sure to be a popular addition to the oboe chamber repertoire.

For me, the musical highlight of the evening was mFm (2002). A combination of interesting instrumental textures, communicative performers and musical contrasts created a satisfying conclusion to the program. In particular the opening of the third movement, featuring piano and electric bass, was truly exquisite ... like a sweet sigh.

I often found myself transfixed by the simple, subtle beauty of these works. I was distracted, though, by the lack of energy and engagement onstage. Throughout the performance, I was yearning for some indication that the performers were communicating with each other – eye contact, a physical nod or cue here or there, perhaps even placing themselves in closer proximity to one another? The final work was an exception, but through the rest of the program there seemed to be many moments of potential connection that just passed by as another crotchet or quaver.

Performance details

Further links


Janet McKay is a prize-winning flautist (James Carson Prize – Qld 1993; Albert Cooper Prize – UK 1996) who has held executive positions in the Qld and NSW Flute Societies, and was Assistant Artistic Director of the 10th Australian Flute Convention. Having recently completed a Master of Music (Performance) at the Sydney Conservatorium, Janet is a freelance performer and teacher specialising in contemporary flute music.


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