Now That Darkness
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Martyn Brabbins conductor. CUB Malthouse, May 23 2005
Written for large orchestra this work is based on a Basho haiku concerning a quail, a hawk and the security that night offers the smaller bird.
A work full of shifting textures and showing a masterful hand at heightening and relieving dynamic and timbral tension, it makes yet another addition to Conyngham's impressive catalogue and a welcome reassurance that his compositional career did not stop with the well-known Ice Carving of 1970.
Reviewer Clive O'Connell The Age
May 25, 2005
Barry Conyngham, music. Janis Balodis, words. Patrick Nolan, director. NORPA. Lismore City Hall, November 22-24 2007.
AUSTRALIAN composers habitually attribute the failure to establish an Australian operatic tradition to the absence of amenable companies, simpatico librettists and suitable local subject matter.
There have been notable exceptions -- the collaborations between Larry Sitsky and Gwen Harwood, between Richard Meale and David Malouf, between the twins Peter and Martin Wesley-Smith -- but these are hardly the norm.
Over the years, Barry Conyngham has been blessed with the librettos of Murray Copland and has had no trouble finding subjects, including loners battling the brick walls of Australian officialdom such as Edward John Eyre, Lawrence Hargrave, Bennelong, even Brett Whiteley.
In Electric Lenin, which premiered last week in the NSW north coast town of Lismore, his home town for 13 years, Conyngham has struck gold in librettist Janis Balodis and a subject with local resonance. Based on a real-life character, Electric Lenin is the call-sign of Samuel, a ham radio operator who has travelled the world seeking the perfect revolution.
From a part of his study he calls comrades' corner he maintains contact with far-flung cohorts via radio. For the past year, as he tended his ailing wife Anna, there was no radio contact. A week after her death, Samuel packs up his life, a rifle lurking ominously in the background, and tunes in to farewell comrades in Russia, Cuba and China.
Balodis has created the kind of text composers crave -- uncluttered lines, simple imagery, words that resonate with sonic possibilities. Inspired by this collaboration, Conyngham has written one of the most mellifluous scores of his career, which branched into music theatre with the 1970 premiere of Edward John Eyre.
For 60 floating minutes, Jason Barry-Smith and Gaye Macfarlane pour out their characters' tensions, regrets and love for each other, often in a kind of ghostly gymnopedie. Both uniformly excellent, they sing against a luminous orchestral tapestry of computerised sounds, over which a live quartet (violin, guitar, flute, trumpet) weaves felicitous melodies, hallmarks of Conyngham, a one-time student of Takemitsu.
Eschewing gummy soft-edged post-modernism, Conyngham's music and Balodis's words approach the best of Stephen Sondheim.
Wisely, director Patrick Nolan allows words and music to command attention. In a mostly static production, the eye is drawn to Craig Walsh's images on the walls and ceiling of the simple timber set by Kathryn Sproul, tenderly lit by David Murray.
In Electric Lenin, the 15th new work commissioned by the Northern Rivers Performing Arts group since its formation in 1993, this brave regional enterprise has again shown that the future of Australian music theatre may well be in marshalling local resources. A textbook case, Electric Lenin should be seen the nation over.
Reviewer Vincent Plush The Australian
November 27, 2006