It has been quite a week for Barry Conyngham. The composer celebrated his 75th birthday yesterday with a concert of his works at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, his home institution. Throughout this week there are performances of his opera Fly in a new chamber production mounted by Lyric Opera of Melbourne.

Barry Conyngham

The audience was welcomed by the new Director of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, as the former Faculty of Music is now styled. Richard Kurth, the American theorist recently arrived from Vancouver where he was Director of the School of Music at the University of British Columbia, paid tribute to “the many gifts Barry Conyngham has brought to the campus” and to “the creative energy to have imagined a place like this”.

That “place” is The Ian Potter Southbank Centre, the resplendent new home of the Melbourne Conservatorium, costing $109m to construct and formally opened on June 1. In a sense, the Potter Centre will stand as the permanent legacy of Barry Conyngham who over the past decade has driven this project to final completion.

This week’s birthday concert presented six pieces composed over the past decade. All drew on a pool of two dozen musicians, comprising present faculty and leading students, as well as American visitors participating in the Mimir Chamber Music Festival running at the MCM from August 24 to September 1.

One of these pieces was a premiere. Mallorca Serenade (2019) is a 10-minute, mini-guitar concerto for Ken Murray, the virtuoso player, longtime faculty member and exponent of contemporary Australian guitar music. Like many of Conyngham’s compositions, it evokes a distinctive time and place in his life. In this case it grew from his several visits to the Atlantic coast of the Spanish island where he has found personal solitude and quiet in an isolated olive-press residence.

Introducing the piece, Conyngham admitted that he shared the nervousness of many non-guitar-playing composers who find the instrument’s intimate acoustic somewhat challenging. But with Murray, Conyngham has created a promising work for the still slim repertoire of Australian concerto-like pieces for the instrument. Mercifully, there are only passing references to the traditional guitar-strumming clichés of Spanish culture. More interesting and effective are the delicate balance between solo instrument and ensemble, and the interplay between those two distinct identities.

Most of the other works on the program were unfamiliar to me. The 11-minute mini concerto for small orchestra, To the Edge (2006) was complemented by the 20-minute evocation of Kangaroo Island (2009). Darwin (2009), a 15-minute setting of words from On the Origin of Species commissioned by Harvard University in celebration of Charles Darwin, was impressively sung by faculty mezzo-soprano Linda Barcan. The presence of a vocal dimension in this preponderantly orchestral program is a reminder, alongside the current performances of Fly, that Conyngham is a composer of memorable lyricism and expressivity.

The program closed with a work Conyngham declared to be a personal favourite. Indeed, Gardener of Time (2010) may be considered one of his masterpieces over time. It was composed as a tribute to the Japanese musician Hiroyuki Iwaki (1932-2006), chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a record 23 years (1974-1997) and commemorated by the MSO by naming its orchestral studio in his honour.

Conyngham’s 14-minute memorial is also an affectionate reflection on his composition mentor, Toru Takemitsu, with whom he worked in Japan in 1970. It is also an evocation of the Japanese landscape and traditions that have long inspired Conyngham. There were some remarkably moving moments: with only hours to prepare his part, the Japanese-American violinist Jun Iwasaki played in elegant conversation with bassoonist Lyndon Watts, and an extended timpani passage from the ever-impressive Peter Neville recalled Iwaki’s background as a percussionist.

At this point, I reflected on several conductors who have championed Conyngham’s music since I first encountered Five Windows at the Sydney Proms in 1970: John Hopkins, Hiroyuki Iwaki, Geoffrey Simon and now Richard Davis, MCM’s Head of Orchestral Studies since early 2017. From that distinguished quartet, Davis impresses as the maestro perhaps most finely attuned to the spirit of this composer’s music: his near-balletic gestures drew out the radiance and coruscating resonances in the music in vivid display.

Conyngham’s music evokes many visual and scenic dimensions. With its splashes of colour, its mellifluous sweep and surge, its surety of technique and gesture, it is perhaps the sonic equivalent of the art of Arthur Boyd. All this was displayed in abundance in this birthday program.

Perhaps too much so? The six pieces, dating from the past decade, had similar durations (10-12 minutes) and were scored for virtually the same ensemble, a chamber orchestra or around two dozen splendid players.

Several of us lamented the absence of the harp, Conyngham’s signature orchestral instrument; the harp parts were taken by guitar players, lessening the effect of some of the Conyngham’s distinctive Debussy/Takemitsu-like moments. There was little sense of contrast or even creative growth in the music of this program, drawn up in consultation between composer and conductor.

Sometime over the course of this year, we may yet experience the growth and expanse of this composer’s career. Several earlier works stand out as shining moments in the firmament of Australian music: Ice Carving (1970) for four ‘melting’ string ensembles and Southern Cross (1982), the double concerto for violin, piano and orchestra, as well as the string quartets – all need to be revisited to create a fuller and more enduring estimation of this singularly important and individual composer.

Over time, other ways might appear ways to celebrate Barry Conyngham’s career in Australian music, over a half-century now. Back home at the University of Melbourne, where in 2017 he was appointed Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor of Music, there may yet be various kinds to acknowledge his 23 years of service there. There could be various Festschrifts, books of essays written in his honour, an exhibition in the Music Library, weekend seminars and public lectures, further concerts and recordings. The present concert was recorded by the ABC for broadcast at a future date.

We could even see the naming of a room or building on the Southbank campus. (By way of precedent: next week, in Canberra, Larry Sitsky’s 85th birthday is being celebrated with a concert of his music in the Larry Sitsky Room at the ANU School of Music.) Already an Emeritus Professor at two Universities, Wollongong and Southern Cross in Lismore (where a Residency has been named in his honour), it is not too much of a call to suggest that a third might be added to this distinguished and perhaps unprecedented list of emeritus status.

Now 75, Conyngham has signalled that an announcement about his future will be made “soon”.  He eagerly anticipates becoming “a freelance composer again,” perhaps sometime in 2021. For the moment, he looks forward to his next big performance, unrelated to the birthday celebrations – a new violin concerto entitled Isao, a tribute to the late Japanese composer and conductor Isao Matsushita (1951-2018). Isao will be premiered in St Petersburg, Russia, on October 10.

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