On 12th March, just a few weeks after devastating bushfires had destroyed much of the south-east coast of Australia, the chamber music group Syzygy Ensemble performed a concert entitled: Terra Subitis 1: Dare to Hope. By this stage, we knew of the existence of the highly infectious COVID-19, but we were still ignorant of the profound impact it would have on our lives. This is likely to be the last concert I attend for many months.
Syzygy, an ensemble of flute, clarinet, ‘cello, piano and violin, specialises in playing new music and on this occasion the ‘oldest’ piece had been composed in 1995. The usual group of Laila Engle, Robin Henry, Campbell Banks and Leigh Harrold was joined by violinist Zoë Black.
The concert opened with the Australian premiere of Greg Caffrey’s for peace comes dropping slow; calming and fluid, the title from Yeats’ poem, Isle of Innisfree: ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow’ — tranquility recalled when the poet was in a bustling city.
Then a contrast. John Psatlas is a New Zealand composer with a Greek cultural heritage. His three Island Songs were full of the energy of Greek dancing, the Eb clarinet providing a shrill intensity.
Sublimity followed. Caerwen Martin’s ‘Spacious and Expressive’ The Beauty of Now was originally written for violin and piano, but in 2019 she revised it for flute and piano and Laila’s mellow playing — even in the high ranges of the piccolo — took us to an ethereal place.
The final item was composed at the very end of the 20th century by Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin: Our Finest Hour. The piece celebrates the joy of creation, scientific discoveries, and then in the last movement there is a tape of Churchill from his speech made in 1940, where he was determined that England should persist in the war with Germany: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.” ‘This was their finest hour’ was deftly inserted into the music by Laila — the piece is scored for violin, ‘cello, piano and clarinet — no flute.
Whilst reflecting on the current turmoil of our world, we were left with the reminder of humankind’s achievements — a strand of hope that we can clutch over the ensuing months as the world locks down.