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Five Elements

Lynne Lancaster

Riley Lee and the Enigma Quartet present a concert of ten pieces based on five elements – a most unusual concert blending East and West.
Five Elements
Image: Prelude in Tea concert at the Independent Theatre. Photo by Ranui Young.

Part of their Prelude in Tea series, Five Elements is a most delicious and entrancing concert at the Independent Theatre. The quartet was striking and original as it combines the talents of world-renowned shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) master, Riley Lee, and the Enigma Quartet.

Dr. Riley Lee is Australia’s pre-eminent shakuhachi (Japanese flute) player. Consummate teacher, performer and collaborator with other musicians of all genres, he was the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of dai shihan or Grand Master. Enigma Quartet comprises Marianne Broadfoot (violin), Kerry Martin (violin), Elizabeth Woolnough (viola) and Rowena Macneish (cello).The project has been in development since 2013.

The umbrella concept of Five Elements for the concert was derived from the belief in many ancient cultures that the entire universe was made of just five fundamental elements, in this case Earth, Air, Water, Fire and Ether.

The concert consisted of 10 contemporary works (including the premiere of eight new, original compositions) and featured some of Australia's most highly-regarded composers alongside exciting emerging talents as well as incorporating music from film composers. Several of the composers were in the audience. Each composer took a different element as their starting point and interpreted this freely. We were also invited to ponder – via listening to the musical performance – on sustainability, the natural environment around us and the impermanence of life itself.

What is most unusual and striking is the blending of shakuhachi and string quartet. A real synergy exists between the exotic and oriental flavour of the shakuhachi and the familiarity of the string quartet; the juxtaposition of Eastern Zen Buddhism with Western Classicism is noteworthy. We experienced new sound worlds created through the union of the meditative sounds and gestures of the shakuhachi and the rich harmonic and timbral palette offered by the broad range of the string quartet.

The composers of the ten short pieces for the Five Elements are Ross Edwards, Anne Boyd, Gerard Brophy, Stuart Greenbaum, Katy Abbott, David Hirschfelder, Holly Harrison, Andrew Howes, Elena Kats-Chernin and Lachlan Skipworth.

The program opened with Skipworth’s Light Rain, placing us in a meditative trance like state. Lee led while the strings shimmered, hovered and rippled. There was an energetic spiky discussion which led to a reflective conclusion.

Next was Stuart Greenbaum’s Oxygen with Lee bubbling on the shakuhachi, darting in and out of the pulsating, scurrying strings. A strong flourish took us to a sharp ending.

Anne Boyd’s Alchera- Jugulba followed, a sharp and spiky discussion by the five musicians but every voice was acknowledged. The strings were edgy and jumpy with a fascinating use of pizzicato. Lee had a glorious haunting solo which led to an expansive, thrilling quintet.

Next came Flash Point by Holly Harrison, fast and dynamic with its emphatic strident opening. Lee had a sharp spiky rather jumpy solo. This work was unusual because of the whirling percussive elements and sounds, with the Quartet knocking on the back of their instruments and at one point the instruments are played like a guitar. It all led to a breathless conclusion.

To take us to interval we heard Elena Kats-Chernin’s Fleeting Moment which while slow and languid, pulsated and throbbed in circular repeated rhythms. Lee’s playing distinctly led in this work which was haunting and reflective and rippled and flowed.

Ross Edward’s Voice of the Rain featured a low hum of cello, shimmering pulsating strings otherwise and a hypnotic solo by Lee.

Andrew Howe’s Aether had a tense stormy atmosphere, with a spiky opening – you could almost feel the dripping humidity just before the storm hits. Lee stated a melody which was taken and developed by the Quartet.

Gerard Brophy’s Air shimmered in a melancholy lament. Lee on shakuhachi was birdlike. Suddenly there are darting spiky pizzicato strings but these lead to a soft ending.   

Katy Abbott’s flowing, pulsating Earth Lullaby had an unusual opening for the strings and some of the work for the strings oozed hypnotically, with an aching lament on the cello. Lee had a softly fluttering wistful solo, the strings supporting him.

The final work was A Fire Begins by David Hirschfelder which was rich and bubbling, with a percussive feel and fast, furious, scurrying strings in infectious circular rhythms.

4 stars out of 5

Prelude in Tea:  Five Elements – Riley Lee and Enigma Quartet 
Independent Theatre North Sydney 
One performance Sunday November 26 2017

Program
Lachlan Skipworth   Light Rain ( water )
Stuart Greenbaum  Oxygen ( air)
Anne Boyd Alchera-Jugulba (earth)
Holly Harrison  Flash Point (fire)
Elena Kats-Chernin Fleeting Moment (ether)
Ross Edwards Voice of the Rain (water)
Andrew Howes Aether (ether)
Gerard Brophy  Air (air)
Katy Abbott Earth Lullaby (earth)
David Hirschfelder  A Fire Begins  (fire)

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.

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