Kim Williams, the charismatic former News Corp CEO, music advocate and composer from Sydney, has bravely brought many of these minds together for a three-day concert series called Incredible Floridas: Chamber Landscapes that is set to simultaneously challenge and inspire.
The series takes its name from the sextet Incredible Floridas, composed in 1971 by one of the most pivotal names in Australian music, Richard Meale. Audiences will hear the utterly gripping sound world he creates in that work, alongside other equally modernist works by composers ranging from Peggy Glanville-Hicks to Jack Symonds.
The point that Williams makes is that this music is so rarely performed nowadays that we can only come to it with fresh ears. This is indeed what he wants. He wants listeners to take delight in music that comes from our shores and our own time in history.
“We in Australia are not good at remembering our cultural history, and we are not good in acknowledging and recognising those who’ve come before us and, often through considerable adversity, have achieved amazing things,” he says.
“Australia has a rich compositional history that should be celebrated.”
One of the clutch of composers he has programmed is Margaret Sutherland, whom he describes as astonishing both as a person and as a creative individual. Born in Adelaide in 1897 and moving to Melbourne at the age of four, she pursued a musical career against the greatest odds but produced a body of works of exceptional quality. Williams champions her music and describes her life as extraordinary.
“Sutherland is such a valiant figure in Australian music,” he says. “Her first paid commissioned work, her Third String Quartet, came in 1967 when she was 69 years old, and that only happened because [fellow Australian composer] Robert Hughes insisted on it when he was chair of APRA. Up until that time everything she had done was purely out of a sense of commitment and proud vocation as a composer.
“She also had to contend with an unhappy marriage with a doctor husband who was apparently a serial philanderer and who vigorously opposed her being a composer. Sutherland, it seems to me, is someone who needs to be much better understood and celebrated for her music.”
In Chamber Landscapes, her First and Third String Quartets will be performed alongside songs which Sutherland wrote to poetry by Judith Wright around the time of her marital separation. Performing these works will be the Australian String Quartet, Flinders Quartet and the much-acclaimed Australian actor-singer Jessica Aszodi.
Williams is no less passionate about the music of Richard Meale. A hallowed name, particularly for those who remember him as lecturer in composition at the Elder Conservatorium of Music during the 1970s and ’80s, he was highly influential in the avant-garde movement before adopting a sonorous, almost warmly romantic expressive vein in his later works.
“Meale is such an important composer, but it seems he has just vanished from the landscape,” says Williams. “It is the 50th anniversary of Incredible Floridas, yet this masterwork hardly ever gets performed.”
A talisman that ushered in a bold new sonic language to a whole generation of Australian composers, it exploited a particular combination of instruments known as the Pierrot Ensemble, based on Schoenberg’s path-breaking Pierrot Lunaire of 1912. It takes its inspiration from poet Arthur Rimbaud just as the Schoenberg’s song cycle draws on Albert Giraud.
The latter is also being performed, along with works by half a dozen other composers who likewise use the same Pierrot Ensemble combination of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion.
One of them is Ave maris stella by Peter Maxwell Davies, the UK composer who commissioned Incredible Floridas from Meale for his ensemble Fires of London. “Max”, as he was known to friends, lived in Adelaide for two years in the mid-60s while serving as composer-in-residence at the Elder Conservatorium.
Several of the performers are drawn from Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring, and joining them will be Adelaide’s own star flautist, Geoffrey Collins. Meale composed his hauntingly beautiful solo flute piece Melisande especially for Collins in 1996, and we hear that too.
Veteran actor John Gaden will recite poetry in each program to underline the literary origins of many of the compositions. Richard Dehmel, Rimbaud and Wright are just a few of the writers represented.
“I’m a great believer that poetry is to literature what chamber music is to music, and I think we need to encourage people to have poetry readings more often at public occasions,” says Williams.
“Artistic expression in both art forms is often at its most personal, intense and refined, and bringing them together can be particularly precious for an audience.”
The Incredible Floridas: Chamber Landscapes concert series will be presented at UKARIA Cultural Centre from March 5-8 as part of the 2021 Adelaide Festival, which opens on February 26.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.