A nature-inspired `Songlines'

Music Review

October 28, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When the National Aquarium in Baltimore expanded its collection to include exotic fishes and reptiles from Australia's Northern Territory, housed in a stunning exhibit that gives visitors a visceral experience of another world, the project didn't stop when the waterfall and the misting machine were turned on. A complementary "cultural connections" initiative was also launched, aimed at spreading greater awareness of things Australian.

Dance, theater and visual art from Australia got exposure in the region as a result of this initiative. Music, too. Last season, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra featured the U.S. premiere of a work by Carl Vine, Australia's most successful boomer-generation composer. Thursday night at the aquarium, a work by the country's eminent dean of composers, Peter Sculthorpe, received its world premiere.

Still going strong at 77, Sculthorpe wrote the subtly colored, atmospheric Baltimore Songlines for violin, clarinet and piano specifically with the aquarium's Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit in mind. The new score, about 17 minutes long, was commissioned by the Embassy of Australia in Washington, the aquarium and Michigan State University, where an ensemble that has long championed Sculthorpe's music, the Verdehr Trio, is in residence.

That trio braved a music-unfriendly auditorium at the aquarium to deliver the premiere on a brief program filled out with other examples of the composer's craft. Given the acoustical dryness and dullness of the hall (not to mention competing ambient noise), the potential impact of each piece was muted, but the quality of inspiration -- Sculthorpe's and the ensemble's -- came through.

Although the title of Baltimore Songlines gives a nod to the origin of the commission, the second word in that title is the significant one. It comes from the Aboriginal culture that, like the topography of his homeland itself, has inspired much of Sculthorpe's output. The concept of songlines refers to distinctive and distinguishing songs that, for thousands of years, have been a part of tribal life and carry on a tradition for a people whose ancestors are said to have sung themselves into existence.

Such an exquisite idea -- birth by song. Baltimore Songlines certainly sings, with long, lyrical melodies that intertwine and expand as new threads emerge to fill in the sonic tapestry.

There is an engaging simplicity and directness to the music, which gets its harmonic flavoring from chords that would not be out of place in a Sondheim ballad and its pulse from minimalist motor rhythms. Hints of nature, especially gentle birdcall-like sounds from the violin, provide atmospheric nuance.

Violinist Walter Verdehr, clarinetist Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr and pianist Silvia Roederer blended seamlessly, as they also did in the stylistically similar, recent scores From Nourlangie and Reef Singing.

On his own, Verdehr provided a sampling of much earlier, edgier Sculthorpe, Irkanda I from 1955, which extracts from a solo violin various sounds of nature within a rather tense sonic landscape.


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