Imaginations | Matt Withers & Acacia Quartet

Acacia with Matt low

The Acacia Quartet comes together with Matt Withers on classical guitar to share a program of emerging and established Australian composers including some brand new pieces from prize-winners from the 2018 Australian Music Composition Competition. Fusing a classical guitar with their inventive and unorthodox tone and technique brings another dimension to this string quartet. Sharing a thematic link of landscape inspiration, Imaginations also plays with the relationship between music and painting as artistic representations of space both real and imaginary.

Opening with a piece titled “Landscape” from Robert Davidson, the five players invite the audience into their program of space and movement. Inspired by the Glass Mountains in Queensland, this piece is dark and discordant. With short, broken notes forming the body of the sound, the guitar gently plods along on top. Davidson describes his inspiration coming from the great age of the mountains and the violence their long history invokes. It’s an unusual composition that sets the tone for the others to follow.

Making their Sydney debut, the three winners of the Australian Music Composition Competition for this year had their work featured in this program. Each piece was inspired by the painting trilogy “Stormy Seashore” by Sue Needham, a dark representation of a turbulent shoreline.

The piece titled “Solitude” by Nava Ryan came first, having won both third place and the under 25s emerging composer categories. In quite a different style from the first, this piece is sweeping and simple in its exploration of the loneliness of this stormy scene. It demonstrates a slow, quiet harmony between the instruments and their players, reflective of the paintings’ watercolour simplicity and delicacy.

Second place went to Rick Alexander’s composition “Storming”, clearly more focused on the power and movement of the depicted sea storm. This piece jumps right into the action with crashing akin to breaking waves and howling winds. Here the violins, played by Lisa Stewart and Myee Clohessy, are given a broad range from piercing to sombre.

The final piece of the first half, composed by Wade Gregory was the winner of the competition and a standout of the concert. “Water Music” comprises three movements titled “Clouds”, “River”, and “Ocean” as a collection exploring the relationship between these three bodies of water. “Clouds” was immediately a more playful take on the theme with an energy and dance-like quality more free than the previous pieces. “River” was a unique conversation piece with the guitar joining each other instrument in duos that bounced into full quint performances at intervals. The final movement was the most playful of the three and took a turn towards the passionate as a samba that represented the movement and flexibility of water as an element and a force of nature.

After interval, the players picked up two pieces composed by two of Australia’s more well-known contemporary composers which both differently demonstrated the innovation customary of Acacia Quartet. “Shorelines” by Richard Charlton is a deep and dramatic piece with three movements that travel through a light rain storm, to a solitary shoreline walk, and finishing with a ruckus dance. The measured and romantic rolling of the second movement “The Lonely Shore” was a lovely continuation of Ryan’s “Solitude” from earlier in the program. This piece was also inspired by Needham’s painting trilogy, focusing on the boundary between land and water particular to shorelines.

The last piece summarised the themes of the entire concert as a three-movement piece “In Amber” by Phillip Houghton. Tonally and technically this piece fit in with the previous pieces but with a shift towards the imaginary, landscapes of the mind rather than the physical. There’s a tension between the racing background sounds and the quieter moments between guitar and violin that distill movement and energy. It also manages to find a balance between eerie and unusual playing and maintaining the aural narrative.

Both of the pieces by Charlton and Houghton saw the players using unusual playing techniques such as plucking the strings to mimic rain, tapping on the instruments with the bows and hands, and running the fingers up and down the strings to create a skin-crawling whine. These techniques are easily fit in amongst more conventional playing by Acacia Quartet and demonstrate the way they play with contemporary music to keep inventing new and interesting ways of creating soundscapes.

This concert from Acacia Quartet and Matt Withers did well to weave music and watercolour, landscapes and imaginary places, and uniquely contemporary techniques with classical instruments. It was wonderful to see the boundaries of music making pushed by both the players and the new composers finding something new and exciting wherever they can.

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