The Grigoryan Brothers and Nigel Westlake conducting the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra demonstrated the power of music to enthral, especially when performed in public. The program balance was ideal, with a welcome variety of tone and thought-provoking themes, plus an unexpected detour into lighter territory.

The multi-award-winning Westlake is noted for his film scores and this night’s pieces were testament to his ability to create atmosphere that aligns well with theme. The internationally celebrated Grigoryan Brothers play in several different genres and showed that versatility, with some humour.

The very short “Pudnanthi Padninthi (The Coming and the Going)” began proceedings. Composed by Jack Buckskin and Jamie Goldsmith, it set a solemn mood. Percussive clicks cut through the swelling sound of bowed double basses whose increasing volume added a sense of foreboding before the sudden close. It was very effective and complemented what was to follow.

The presentation (in collaboration with the 2021 Adelaide Guitar Festival) of Westlake’s “Toward Takayna: Concerto for Two Guitars” was a world premiere. Inspired by the composer’s visit to Australia’s largest temperate forest in the Tarkine wilderness of north-west Tasmania, it reflected that rich environment and was written for the Grigoryan brothers.

The evocative first movement suggested the forest setting with darting and luminous sounds of birdsong courtesy of the marimba, celeste and harp, with a layer of strings and guitars. The guitars erupted into a brilliant cadenza as if bursting into new space before the altogether calmer second movement. The remainder was equally redolent of place and animals, especially when the guitars (occasionally with one a 12-string) featured without the orchestra.

A bonus offering comprised two short pieces from the Grigoryan Brothers before the interval, with Leonard Grigoryan on ukulele and his brother on classical acoustic guitar. “Love Token”, introduced by Slava, was a response to seeing a convict’s engraved medallion, while the whimsical “Don’s Bat” celebrated Bradman’s 1934 Test Match. Each was clearly a success with the audience.

Westlake’s “Antarctica Suite for Guitar and Orchestra” took ideas from his score for the Antarctica movie, and was written for famed guitarist John Williams. Slava Grigoryan played with grace and gusto here. The result, as it travelled through its four movements, was exhilarating.

The first movement, “The Last Place on Earth”, began slowly and with an almost melancholy feeling, including a mesmerising solo guitar moment. The “Wooden Ships” movement was soothing and lyrical; littered with small figures that surprised. “Penguin Ballet” provided a delicious series of lively sounds, conjuring those creatures as they burst back onto the ice after fishing, and “The Ice Core” was spacious and haunting before a final punch. A very entertaining ride.

Lastly, and most apt, was Westlake’s “The Glass Soldier – Suite”. Based on Hannie Rayson’s play, it deals with the experiences of Nelson Ferguson in the killing fields of Europe in World War I. Westlake sketched the story in an introductory talk, mentioning the bombing of a church that left Nelson blinded. The essence of the suite, as he said, was courage and tenderness.

Trumpets immediately established the military setting, soon subsumed by aching strings. Harp and piano embellished the second movement, as an agitated pummelling of drums suggested bombing. Westlake’s filmic sensibilities were apparent as deep cello and double-bass sounds pulled that part to a close, and the third opened with cello again, presenting a plaintive lament at the aftermath of battle. Drums and trumpet introduced the fourth, combining with mounting strings as they moved to a bright and glorious climax.

This program was vital and varied, offering Westlake’s cleverly nuanced paintings of place and mood alongside the Grigoryans’ virtuosic skills. All took rewarding chances in a musical night to remember.

Adelaide Guitar Festival teamed up with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to present Nigel Westlake and Grigoryan Brothers in Concert in the Festival Theatre on April 24 ahead of the full program of Guitar Festival performances in July. The festival program is being launched this week.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.