Presented by Camerata in conjunction with Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) and the Brisbane Festival, The Conference of the Birds is centred around the epic 12th-century poem of the same name by Persian mystic and poet, Attar of Nishapur. It is an allegorical story of love, faith and humanity’s search for courage, offering both a sense of loss but also hope for the future. This multi-dimensional artistic work provided a holistic dimension to Camerata’s normal concert programming. Moreover, it was a perfect choice for festival fare, augmenting a powerful musical score with spoken text and visual illustrations, as well as design and lighting elements.
The concert commenced with Mendelssohn’s glorious Sinfonia No 10 in B Minor presented as an overture, with both the Adagio and Allegro components included in a single powerful movement. Commencing slowly and softly, the stately delivery of the Adagio section was well paced by the orchestra, producing a fine repetitive melody in the upper strings. As the mood and tempi changed to a much quicker rhythm, the movement transitioned into the major key. This produced forceful bowings from the violins, which subsequently subsided into a calmer finale to end the section. The Allegro got off to a fiery start with strong, dominant playing by the darker strings, basses and celli, followed by the violas taking up the theme with great force, adding depth and richness to the score. Followed by ever-quicker recapitulations of the main rising theme, and interspersed with a second delicate theme, the violins at first played pianissimo, but transitioned to a noisy coda played at a cracking pace by the orchestra. Tightly managed and exceptionally well played, the Mendelssohn provided an impressive start to the evening.
The Conference of the Birds tells the story of the birds of the world who gather in a time of trouble to discuss their future and are then led by the wise hoopoe bird to find their king. Many die or fall by the wayside on the voyage and eventually only 30 remain, who discover, when looking in a lake at their own reflection, that they are in fact themselves the king.
The work consists of spoken text and music, accompanied by projected illustrations. There were five spoken parts of a text written by The New York Times author and illustrator, Peter Sis, from the poem by Attar Nishapur. Actor Liz Buchanan gave a wonderful reading of this allegorical tale, managing to find a voice for each of the birds and characters such as the Mountain of Kaf, while vividly describing the seven valleys over which the birds pass. She added immensely to the success of the work with her fine vocal delivery.
Sis was also the creator of the exquisite and impressive illustrations. These included some stunning birds, as well as delicate Middle Eastern watercolours of many landscapes. They demonstrated all too poignantly the journey that the narrative takes towards truth and self-discovery. Assisting to make this a multimedia presentation were set pieces such as a projection of birds on the back wall and a wind chime of fluttering birds, imaginatively lit by Richard ‘Zak’ Harrison, with a layout of branches created by floral artist, Caroline de Lore.
The celebrated American composer, Lembit Beecher, originally conceived The Conference of the Birds score for string orchestra A Far Cry, writing individual lines for 18 solo strings. This was emulated in this reading. Two movements that are interwoven around the spoken text showed the power of Beecher’s music, leaving an indelible impression on the listener. At first, the individual musical lines appeared haphazardly across the separate string sections of the orchestra, reminding us of birds settling on branches as evening falls. The sawing of bows on strings sounded like chattering or squarks, and even the flapping of wings. The first movement died down as the birds roost. The second two-part movement, after the birds have flown exhaustively over seven different valleys and are depleted in numbers, was both more tuneful and cohesive, with shimmering violins and some excellent solos from the front desk of each orchestral section. It ended on a clearly defined rasping note, the players rubbing sand paper together to convey the end of the journey for the birds. It was a magical finale.
Neatly bookended around this work were two sections of Vaughan Williams’ perennially popular The Lark Ascending, performed on solo violin by Artistic Director, Brendan Joyce. Even though Vaughan Williams’ music is so different in style and texture to Beecher’s, the sections flowed seamlessly without any obvious stylistic issues.
Vaughan Williams’ marvellously evocative work, with all the trademarks of the composer’s yearning and reflective style, clearly articulates the spirit of a lark taking flight, singing in the hedgerows and fields of his native England. The first section, the Andante Sostenuto, saw Joyce play the tiniest whisper of sound of the flitting lark with the pianissimo of the violin quite ravishing. With poignant orchestral backing from the strings, and including five excellent woodwind players, Joyce’s violin rose high above the orchestra, his lark seemingly oblivious to the tranquil country sounds of nature below. He offered some exceptionally fine cadenzas, his interpretation technically powerful and beautifully played. Part 2, the Allegretto tranquillo, started softly with a fine clarinet solo and lyrical, colourful music from the woodwind and the front desk of the violins. Joyce excelled himself yet again, the merest whisper of the lark’s voice on the violin offering ethereal and haunting final notes to bring the concert to a stunning conclusion.