For the past few years, the centenary of World War I has been observed throughout the world in what has seemed like an endless cortege of ceremonials, monuments and speeches, films and art exhibitions, concerts and recordings. In Australia, few projects have been propagated by the extent of research and depth of dedication as those pursued by Christopher Latham.

Latham’s focus has been on the loss to music of composers and performers killed in all theatres of the Great War. He has helped revive interest in the music of Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916), the Australian composer and pianist who was killed in the last days of the Battle of the Somme in November 1916. More recently, he created the Gallipoli Symphony for the ANZAC centennial, a convocation of music by Australian, New Zealand and Turkish composers. He was recently appointed Artist in Residence at the Australian War Memorial for the next five years. This unprecedented appointment sent ripples of excitement through the institutional family in the national capital.

Latham’s focus this year is on France and the great painter, Claude Monet (1840-1926). Between the start of the Great War and his death 12 years later, Monet created nearly 200 paintings, many derived from the magnificent jardin d’eau or water-garden at his estate in Giverny. Latham’s project, Monet: The Flowers of War, reflects on what he calls “the destruction of French Impressionism,” both in art and music, by the violence and carnage of the Great War. The project came to life as a concert which celebrated the last flowering of French Impressionism. In passing, it might be mentioned that Latham has long been fascinated with synaesthesia (the connections between sound and colour) and he describes this concert as “an exaltation of Monet’s exploration of the emotional resonance of pure colour”.

Entering the Fairfax Theatre at the National Gallery Friday evening, the audience was struck by a carpet of red poppies strewn randomly across the stage, a huge blank screen and a small space for a quartet of musicians crammed to one side. For 70 minutes, four of the most accomplished musicians in the country played 14 of the most glorious, War-defiant music ever written. There was not a single lament, sigh or tear, no memorials here, just reflection on the great music that appeared in France despite the War.

Canberra audiences know these performers well: they have figured prominently in concerts at the Canberra International Music Festival in recent years (Latham was the CIMF Director from 2009-14). The cellist David Pereira, a local legend, the flautist Jane Rutter and pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska, were joined here by Latham himself, a former Australian Chamber Orchestra violinist. While their performances were not entirely immaculate, they impressed with their deep commitment to the music and to the enterprise of bringing some deal of unfamiliar music to life. And, for many listener, the concert served to remind us what a wonderful violinist Latham has been and, clearly, continues to be.

For this listener, the most interesting music was the least familiar – short pieces by Jean Cras (1879-1972) and Philippe Gaubert (1879-1941), practically indistinguishable from better known music by Debussy and Ravel, save for a few sour harmonies. The deepest impression was left by performances of three short pieces by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), sister of the much more famous Nadia; Lili Boulanger died at the tragically early age of 24, and Latham makes a very persuasive case for her recognition as a composer who would have been a major voice in 20th century French music. Let’s hope that Latham manages to find a way to perform her Three Psalms (ca 1912) in Australia.

Beyond these rarities was more familiar music by Debussy and Ravel, movements from sonatas and piano trios, intersecting with short pieces by their compatriots, and the swan of Saint-Saëns too. There is not a great deal of repertoire for this unusual combination; Latham arranged five of the pieces, lifting melodic lines from the piano part and doubling them with instrumental unisons. His interventions were effective and unobtrusive.

The delivery of the music was hampered by the ultra-dry acoustic of the Fairfax Theatre, designed as a theatre for spoken presentations, it must be said in all fairness. Throughout, it seemed that a heavy veil had descended on the three instrumentalists; their beautiful melodic lines struggled to soar, particularly in the sumptuous harmony of the Nymphes a la fontaine by Gaubert and the extended tierce de Picardie cadence which brought the Danza tenera (1917) by Jean Cras to a close. Cislowska’s piano sustained no such impediment; it was magisterial and uplifting, perhaps a little too dominant at times. In the long run, the acoustic dryness of the theatre may not be a bad thing. The concert was being recorded for release as a DVD and some deal of artificial reverberation might be well used to enhance the sound.

The 14 pieces were performed with barely a break to turn pages; this created some confusion for patrons who could not follow the printed programme in the darkened auditorium. Throughout, projections of Monet’s waterlilies proceeded in one seamless, splendid stream. For some, this was disturbing: the soft fades between the projections meant that the eye could savour the imagery only very briefly, and images in landscape format appeared atop images of portrait, creating an awkward framing of segments. For most, though, the experience was one of exhilarating immersion. I am sure many of us dreamed that night that we were goldfish swimming in Monet’s ponds.

Latham’s vision splendide will live on as a gift from the people of Australia to the people of France. The concert will be released as a DVD and 150 copies will be distributed to galleries and collections throughout France, through the auspices of the Australian War Memorial and various other agencies, including the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

This was one of those rare events that, for its profound sincerity and understated simplicity, will live in the memory long after the orotund pieties have faded to silence and the tattered flags returned to their cathedrals. The brilliance of this concert is that it uses the power of music – that wordless art – to touch the spirit in ways that words cannot.

“My subject is War, and the pity of War,” Wilfred Owen wrote. “The Poetry is in the pity”. And so too, in Christopher Latham’s magnificent obsession, is the Music.

Monet: The Flowers of War concert is at the National Gallery of Australia until September 30.


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