City of London Festival – Ruthless Jabiru [Sculthorpe, Barber & Copland]

Small Town
Shining Island [European premiere]
Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Second Sonata for Strings
Appalachian Spring – Suite [original scoring]

Emma Pearson (soprano)

Ruthless Jabiru
Kelly Lovelady

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 9 July, 2011
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London

A major theme of this year’s City of London Festival is the music of the South Pacific, particularly that of Australia and New Zealand. A great deal of music by antipodean composers is being performed during the festival and this programme by Kelly Lovelady’s chamber orchestra Ruthless Jabiru, made up largely of Australian musicians based in London, elegantly placed Peter Sculthorpe’s music alongside American works.

The Jabiru is an Australian bird, somewhat resembling a stork, and the name certainly proved appropriate given Sculthorpe’s tendency to incorporate birdcalls into his music, most clearly heard in Shining Island, composed by Sculthorpe as a tribute to the Polish composer Henryk Górecki, who died last year. Sculthorpe met Górecki at a music festival and was amused by his pessimism; Górecki retorted to Sculthorpe’s optimism by saying “it’s alright for you, coming from that big white shining island, Australia.” Sculthorpe’s musical homage transforms a very Góreckian trudging tread into a more hopeful vision of chirruping birds and gentle contentment. The two brief pieces that preceded Shining Island demonstrate Sculthorpe’s delicate attention to detail. Small Town ornaments a light and easygoing melody with intimations of darker currents, supplied by rumblings from the percussion and from the slender selection of brass instruments. Djilile presages the initial gloom of Shining Island with plaintive tone and string-based repetitions. These are attractive and intriguing works, but tentative playing from the strings suggested a lack of rehearsal and diminished the pieces’ effect.

The same was true of the performance of Sculthorpe’s Second Sonata for Strings, which alternates a hard-edged and sombre tone with rustling and dancing music more akin to Piazzolla’s tangos. This score could presumably be played by a full string orchestra, but Ruthless Jabiru could surely have found more volume from their small numbers and injected more excitement into a rarely heard work.

Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring (in its original chamber scoring) allowed us to hear more from the ensemble’s more-extrovert wind and brass players. The nostalgic hues of Barber’s setting of James Agee’s childhood recollection are the musical equivalent of the elegiac westerns of the 1980s and early 90s, such as Michael Cimino’s studio-sinking behemoth Heaven’s Gate, or Terrance Malik’s golden-toned Days of Heaven; all beautifully lit in semi-sepia and told in a gently mournful manner that recalls a lost past that never really existed. In Emma Pearson, Knoxville had an excellent narrator: her mellow but imploring tone injected a little urgency into the performance while her clear diction rendered the text unusually vivid and she slid easily between notes, giving a pleasant flow to the work. In the Copland, though, the temperature was cool. Ruthless Jabiru proved adept at moments of calm stillness but couldn’t muster much energy for episodes of festive reverie.

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