Inspired by the heart-warming story of the Night Parrot, an elusive bird long-thought to be extinct in Australia, the Queensland Music Festival (QMF) collaborated with Bush Heritage Australia to bring a conservation theme to life through music. The Night Parrot had its world premiere in Winton in outback Queensland, where the species was rediscovered in 2013, following sightings as well as hearings of its melodic and distinctive call. Bush Heritage subsequently purchased the spinifex land where the bird was sighted and established the 56,000-hectare Pullen Pullen Reserve, where they now monitor the bird’s progress. The story of this shy flightless parrot, mostly a ground dweller and therefore prey to all manner of feral creatures, captured the imagination of Artistic Director Katie Noonan who decided to explore in music and song the plight of this endangered Queensland species.

Night ParrotThe Acacia Quartet and Morgan England-Jones perform Jessica Wells’ The Night Parrot. Photo: supplied

Jessica Wells was commissioned to compose The Night Parrot for the Acacia String Quartet and voice. Clearly, she had a passion for the subject matter and for the most part the composition worked well, suiting the theme with its use of dramatic tension leading up to discovery of the bird, alongside some lovely bird song and parrot noises which were well-interpreted and played by the quartet.

Soprano Morgan England-Jones has a dark, rich lyric voice that offered good colour and strength to the music. She evoked a real sense of the Queensland landscape through her intelligent singing, an accessible libretto, as well as through some excellent spoken words and poetry. Wells cleverly decided that bush poetry with rhyming couplets offered a strong sense of place for this work and, with both humour and some light musical touches, her use of the spoken word helped to characterise and explain the background surrounding the elusive Parrot. She was assisted by some marvellous projected imagery of the Parrot itself, the landscape and other relevant photos, tastefully presented in a matt format resembling paintings or water-colours that faded into each other, often overlaid with images of the musicians. This production design was most effective and worked seamlessly with the musical score.

Given that the length of the main work was only 20 minutes, the program also featured five bird-related works from Queensland composers arranged by Steve Newcomb for voice and string quartet. These were mostly charming short songs that benefited from the additional visual imagery of the birds and their surroundings. Colin Brumby’s The Lark Now Leaves His Wat’ry Nest stood out musically, however the two works by Alfred Hill, setting John Spence’s Albatross and Alan Tregaskis’ Speak With the Sun had a sameness that seemed to blend into each other. Only Sally Whitwell’s The Birds, with three entirely separate musical sections representing the Skylark, Nightingale and Linnet, offered varied and interesting music, while the soprano seemed more at ease with this work.

A quartet arrangement of possibly the most famous of all musical pieces about birds, Vaughan Williams’ glorious The Lark Ascending completed this section. Such a quintessentially English musical work seemed a curious and anachronistic choice for a program that was so specifically Queensland focused. Additionally, without the lush sound of an orchestra, this rendition appeared both thin and unassuming. Violinist Lisa Stewart played the solo representing the fluttering lark with commitment but overall the work lacked both the sweet stillness and the sweeping beauty of sound that we have come to expect from this celebrated work.

An irritant throughout the concert was the use of amplification in such a small theatre. Morgan England-Jones’ soprano is large and fulsome and the use of a microphone not only seemed superfluous but was at times overpowering, causing difficulties with her diction. Additionally, the musicians’ microphones picked up small sounds and movements on stage that distracted from their playing.

Despite these concerns, this was overwhelmingly a thoughtful and informative concert, offering a compelling real story about the issues facing endangered species in our society. The format adopted, where science meets art through an impressive and impassioned new piece of music, was also warmly received by the audience. All credit to Katie Noonan and her team at the QMF for such an original and accessible work and may it have many more opportunities to be played in the future.

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