Sounds of Australia

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By Contributor profile

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine.

Rebecca Franks
, Updated 31st October 2013

Didgeridoo player William Barton was on dazzling form in the second Darwin Symphony Orchestra concert at Uluru

To the west of Uluru, the setting sun gilded the sky. Mother sun, as the Anangu people describe it, explained Bob Randall, one of the traditional owners of the iconic and sacred rock. Later, during the concert, Father Moon rose, a yellow disc that paled as it moved up from the hot red earth into the dark night sky. Ordinary events; but natural wonders.

Wonders that the Anangu – the indigenous people living in Australia's western central desert – have witnessed for tens of thousands of years, but perhaps not to the sounds of 'Sunrise' from Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. Wrong time of day, yes, but this dramatic opener to the second of two orchestral concerts at Uluru captured something of the majesty and splendour of the sun in an exceptional landscape. Unlike the previous evening's Verdi concert, this programme felt closely associated with place, nowhere more than in Peter Sculthorpe's Earth Cry, for digeridoo and orchestra.

Soloist William Barton is perhaps the only digeridoo player who has tried and successfully melded this traditional indigenous instrument with mainstream Western classical music - playing with the Berlin Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall - and this version of Earth Cry is in part testament to that endeavour. Sculthorpe created the solo digeridoo part for Barton after hearing him playing in 2002, weaving the line into the already popular Earth Cry of 1986. The piece is simply but cleverly written, melodious but not hackneyed. In the hands of the superbly virtuosic Barton, the didgeridoo seemed to tap into an elemental energy, acting both as a conduit for the sounds of the earth around us and the voice of the people who live in it. It was mesmerising.

Barton's own Birdsong at Dusk (2006) also featured, following an atmospheric performance of Musorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain - a Russian interloper that fitted surprisingly well with the Australian theme. Birdsong at Dusk, scored for digeridoo and string quartet, portrays the freedom of birds in the open Australian landscape. Barton himself played and sang, revealing a powerful, haunting voice, while the DSO string quartet wonderfully conjured up the desert atmosphere.

Matthew Hindson's Bright Red Overture, commissioned by the orchestra for the occasion, took as its inspiration 'vivacious, brilliantly bright red that is indicative of vibrant life and energy'. The right colour for a concert in Australia's Red Centre, but the concept took a stronger hold in the mind than the music. Bob Randall, who had welcomed the audience both evenings with moving warmth, also took to the stage with a guitar. He performed his 1970s song Brown Skin Baby, about Australia's Stolen Generation - the thousands of Aboriginal babies forcibly taken away by the authorities - of whom Randall is one.

With Michael Hurst's Swagman's Parade (1965) - a medley including Waltzing Matilda and Click go the Shears - and the Australian national anthem on the programme, things began to turn away from the landscape first to patriotism and then to sheer entertainment. Rounding everything off was a set starring Australian jazz virtuoso James Morrison, on trumpet, trombone, soprano sax, piano... you name it.

His musicianship was dazzling, though it seemed a shame the Darwin Symphony Orchestra had to take a back seat in their own concert. Amid a constant flow of jokes and anecdotes, Morrison, his band and the orchestra performed jazz standards including Hoagy Carmichael's Lazy River and Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo and El gato. It was a party atmosphere, and an upbeat end to a pretty unforgettable pair of concerts.

Main image: Rebecca Franks

Contributor profile

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine.

Rebecca Franks