Canberra International Music Festival – Sunset at the High Court

CIMF 2014 - Con16 Sunset High Court.It’s doubtful if the possibility ever occurred to the architects when designing the magnificent High Court building, that it would become one of Canberra’s most unusual and cherished music-making venues.

But as Canberrans have come to realise, and this imaginatively staged concert conclusively demonstrated, that is exactly what it is. Listening to beautiful music in this lofty setting, while gazing out at the riot of autumnal colour through the huge windows, is an experience difficult to surpass.

In keeping with the theme of the festival, a varied program of French and German vocal masterworks, composed around the times of the world wars, was chosen. A significant number of the compositions were receiving their Australian premieres. The audience was encouraged to move around and explore the resonant qualities of the building, as items were performed in different areas.

While this was happening, representatives of architects and graduates the Australian Institute of Architects and University of Canberra read aloud quotes from architects highlighting the connection between architecture, music and art. So as not to interrupt the atmosphere, the audience was requested to hold its applause until the end of the concert. Given the excellence of the performances, that turned out to be a difficult request to honour.

The concert commenced impressively with a performance by soprano Anna Fraser together with The Song Company and members of the Sprogis Woods Smith Young Artists, grouped in the lower foyer and conducted by Roland Peelman, of Les Sirenes, a work written in 1911 by French composer, Lili Boulanger when she was just 18 years of age. Several of Boulanger’s works have been given their Australian premieres during this festival and this composition with its gorgeous soaring harmonies proved an excellent opening choice.

Pianist Adam Cook played another Boulanger composition, the deeply romantic Prelude in D Flat Major, while the singers, having performed Hugo Distler’s gentle and contemplative Es ist ein Ros entsprugen, moved in procession to the higher levels of the building to present a stunning performance of Maurice Ravel’s 1915 composition Trois beaux oisaux du paridis.

Also receiving their Australian premiere were group of nine diverse and intricate short songs by little-known German composer, Fritz Jurgens. The first four of his songs were beautifully realised by Christina Wilson accompanied on piano by Alan Hicks, followed by five more, equally exquisitely sung by Louise Page accompanied by Phillipa Candy.

Then, from the higher balconies, The Song Company with the Sprogis Woods Smith Young Artists performed two songs by Francis Poulenc before launching into a thrilling interpretation of selections from Hugo Distler’s Totentanz.

Pianist Daniel de Borah performed the sombre Slow Movement from Piano Sonata in D Major written by Botho Sigwart Graf Zu Eulenburg, following which The Song Company with the Sprogis Woods Smith Young Artists, conducted by Roland Peelman, brought the long and demanding concert to a conclusion with a thrilling performance of another Lili Bolanger composition Vieille priere bouddihique, which, finally released from the restriction to withhold their applause, the audience rewarded with a long and sustained ovation.

Sunset at the High Court
High Court of Australia, Parkes Place, Parkes (Canberra)
Performance: Thursday 15 May 2014 – 4.30pm

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Review: Bill Stephens

Image: Roland Peelman conducts The Song Company together with Sprogis Woods Smith Young Artists – photo by Peter Hislop