Paul Stanhope turns Indigenous legend into choral hero.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

July 16, 2014

The main item on the agenda here was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s major commission for the year – Jandamarra: Sing for the Country, an epic choral cantata on the legends surrounding the leader of a 19th-century Indigenous revolt in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Paul Stanhope was the composer tasked with collaborating with writer Steve Hawke, son of a noticeably proud Bob and the late Hazel (one of the works dedicatees). The other crucial partner was the Bunuba people, custodians of the Jandamarra story.

Jandamarra was a warrior of the Bunuba who, after initially helping the police track down and kill members of his own community, decided to change sides and lead an uprising against the settlers appropriating Aboriginal land. Famed in legend as a shape shifter who could turn invisible to avoid pursuit, he was eventually hunted down and shot after the authorities enlisted the aid of a fellow Indigenous tracker.

Stanhope and his collaborators have spent much time in the Kimberley, learning the stories and music at first hand in order to combine local culture with a symphony orchestra, actors, a substantial choir of young people and the Yilimbirri Ensemble of Indigenous singers and dancers.

The result is a hybrid work, part dramatic cantata, part play with music, of enormous variety and considerable power. At times it reminded me of Holst’s choral ballets, or Benjamin Britten’s church parables. Stanhope, like Britten (or even more so, like another English composer Jonathan Dove), is blessed with the musical common touch – that rare ability to combine sophistication with accessibility and a gift for works that thrive on community involvement.

His choral and orchestral writing is deft and effective, utilising a large, colourful array of instruments and at its strongest when incorporating the Indigenous themes, instruments and songs that lie at the heart of Jandamarra. There’s a filmic sweep to a great deal of the work and an effervescence in Stanhope’s use of brass, high woodwind and tuned percussion. Where he occasionally falters is maintaining momentum from one episode to the next and there were one or two missed opportunities to heighten the dramatic moment (perhaps a misjudgement of what his audience might respond to, or maybe a reluctance to simply go for gold). Nevertheless, what he did give us had plenty of character, style and dramatic variety and it was put across with a terrific sense of commitment by the massed forces arrayed on the Sydney Opera House concert platform.

Chief honours must go to the various ensembles of Gondwana Choirs – the Gondwana Chorale, Gondwana National Indigenous Children’s Choir, Sydney Children’s Choir and the Godwana Combined Schools Choir – phew! Immaculately drilled, the young voices offered an object lesson in choral discipline, singing with focussed tone and palpable enthusiasm. And I’m not just saying that to be nice to youngsters – shut your eyes and they could have been a professional adult choir. They really were exemplary. Brett Weymark held it all together and more, ensuring a perfect balance between his young choral forces and an excellent Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The soloists were led by two fine boy trebles as the young Jandamarra (Mataika Wymarra-Gerrie) and his settler friend and contemporary Lindsay (Dominic Grimshaw here particularly clean and confidant of tone). As their mothers, actors Patsy Bedford and Margaret Mills were full of warmth, character and emotion. The moment when they came together as one and started the Dirrari lament for the fallen Jandamarra was deeply poignant. Simon Lobelson made a fine baritone narrator (no fault of his but perhaps a less classical voice might have made a better fit). Emmanuel Brown was an excellent Jandamarra, here, there and everywhere – including the organ loft – in Phil Thomson’s imaginative staging, which included an enclave of Bunuba singers and musicians offering evocative vocal and percussive contributions.

The brief first half of the concert featured two works by those most English of composers, Gustav Holst (A Fugal Overture) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (his Oboe Concerto). The Holst was a welcome rarity – a genial, occasionally galumphing romp of a work full of tricksy rhythms and glittering brass and percussive effects. The central ‘fugal’ section was handled with aplomb before the tambourine drove the SSO home in style.

If there’s a more lovely evocation of the English countryside than RVW’s Oboe Concerto, then I for one do not know what it is. A rhapsodic shepherd’s pipe song over a warm bed of strings, this could only be the Gloucestershire of the composer’s youth. The woodwind equivalent of The Lark Ascending, Diana Doherty had the full measure of the work from the outset, shaping each phrase with care and attention. Chirpy in the bouncy folky sections and rapturous in the freeform rambles, Doherty captured moments of heart aching beauty. Her flexible pacing and exquisite tone brought a lump to this ex-pat’s throat at least. Brett Weymark proved a most sensitive accompanist.

Jandamarra is at Sydney Opera House until Saturday July 19.

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