In Tim Winton’s novel Eyrie, everything is on the precipice for Fremantle resident Tom Keely. His marriage has failed, he has lost his job, and he rocks up for the first time in his life to a classical concert where he hears an oboist play a concerto.
“From the soloist’s first brazen thrust he was captivated by her impish confidence. Such a naff instrument, really, the oboe, but she went at the thing like a jazzer. You could feel the ripple of indignation roll across the hall.” As her playing unfolds Keely finds himself overcome. “And like an idiot he began to weep”, his tears by the end turning into sobs “that were drowned, thank God, by the roaring ovation”.
A remarkable thing happened soon after Eyrie landed on the bookshelves. Someone alerted Diana Doherty, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s star oboist, urging her to read the above passage. “You’ve got to read this – this is weird, it’s almost like he’s talking about you,” the friend said. Doherty’s father then took a look ,too, and asked ,“How could it not be you?”
Doherty says this was enough to urge her to contact Winton herself, to see if there was any connection between this fictional scene and her own performance at the Perth Concert Hall years ago, in which she played Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Oboe and Strings. So she wrote to him. “And he wrote me the most beautiful letter back,” she recalls. “It was handwritten actually, and, yes, he said he had been there at my concert, and the experience that the guy had in the book was very close to his own, which to me is just incredibly special.”
And this coming from one of Australia’s foremost musicians.
Doherty has loved that Vaughan Williams concerto ever since she first played it with an orchestra as a “crazy young” 16-year-old in the state finals of the ABC Young Performers Awards competition. She says that experience, which established her career overnight, completely swept her up. “It was just such an intense part of my life,” she says.
In the years since, Doherty has played the same concerto many times, particularly with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and has come to view it as one of the most profoundly moving works for oboe. Many other oboists play it as a technical showpiece, but not she.
“While there are some technical challenges in the piece, I feel that’s really missing the point,” she says. “The point is much more about the poetry and the heart-feeling longing it expresses. To me, it’s about finding a kind of calm place, a place of real acceptance and inward reflection.
“So [Winton] must have come along and liked what he heard,” Doherty modestly suggests.
The unexpected ways in which literature, music and, indeed, all artforms can inform one another is something that has intrigued Doherty a lot recently. At Ukaria 24 this September – which she has been invited to curate – she explores this idea in multiple ways.
One is ‘Book Music’, a concert that aims to recreate the scene in which the fictional Keely hears her playing the Vaughan Williams concerto. This time she plays it in a smaller chamber version, as befits Ukaria’s intimate acoustics. The plan was to have Winton there on stage with the musicians reading passages from Eyrie and his earlier novel Dirt Music. Alas, this didn’t prove possible. “We did approach him, and he gave his blessings and was totally supportive, but unfortunately wasn’t able to commit to coming himself,” says Doherty. Instead, composer Iain Grandage is doing the readings.
Another area that interests Doherty is how musicians sometimes visualise colours, shapes and even imagery when they perform. In the Baroque period, a whole theory known as Affektenlehre built around the notion that certain properties in music, such as keys and melodic patterns, convey particular emotions. Doherty has studied all this and employs it in her interpretation of 12 solo fantasias by Telemann. “I developed a short text for each one which will kind of link character, colour, mood to each one,” she says.
In her concert titled ‘Telemann’s Rainbow’, a series of canvases by Sydney artist Bernadette Trela will be unveiled as Doherty plays each of the fantasias. Trela is known for her impressionistic pictures of clouds, and Doherty says she keeps coming back to them because of the way they blur landscape and imagination, and “because there’s enough there to say, ‘Oh they look like clouds’, but not enough to say they really are clouds.”
Doherty and Trela first trialled their ideas together recently and found that the way they responded to the Telemann pieces was similar but different. “I had my kind of colour scheme worked out, and how Bernadette responded when I played didn’t necessarily always fit that,” says Doherty. “But that’s the beauty of art and language, isn’t it? We all understand things in our own way. So I am really interested to see how her paintings turn out.”
The Ukaria 24 weekend will also include a tribute to Nigel Westlake, a composer whom Doherty greatly admires. We will hear her again in the chamber version of his oboe concerto Spirit of the Wild, which she premiered last year at Ukaria.
She says she hopes people won’t mind her playing it again, because that’s where the idea of this concert series really started. “It was such a lovely experience there at Ukaria the first time.” She says it is Westlake’s rhythmic energy that she is most drawn to, but she also adores what can be found when one looks closely at his scores. “There’s a complexity whereby the more you look the more you see, which I think is the mark of a really great composer.”
Doherty feels a particularly strong connection with Spirit of the Wild. Westlake involved her from the beginning when he composed it, infusing her improvisatory sounds from the instrument directly into his writing. In its rescoring for chamber ensemble it somehow gains more, she believes. “I love that up-close-and-personal, grungy sort of thing that we get. It’s more like a concerto for seven players, rather than just for me.”
We also get to hear again that exceptionally moving song cycle Compassion with Lior. Westlake wrote this work following the tragic loss of his son Eli in a terrible road rage incident. “I just think that’s such a lesson to all of us,” says Doherty. “If you look at the way the world is going we can only reflect on how we could all have a bit more compassion to what others are going through. I just think it’s such a noble sentiment, and from Nigel of all people. It’s just him, I guess: an incredibly warm, loving, and generous person to a fault.”
curator Diana Doherty
Ukaria Cultural Centre, Mount Barker
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