The Digger's Requiem - review by Vincent Plush

2000 hrs, Sunday 7 October 2018.
Lyneham, Canberra, ACT

THE DIGGER'S REQUIEM

by Vincent Plush

Last night, in the Llewellyn Hall at the Australian National University in Canberra, I attended a remarkable and historic event: the world premiere of a composite musical composition called THE DIGGER'S REQUIEM. (For the benefit of my American and non-Australian readers, a "digger" was the colloquial name ascribed to an Australian soldier in the First World War, and in similar conflicts thereafter.)

This was the climax of a four-year-long commemoration of the centenary of The Great War (1914-18). Each year, Christopher Latham, well known in Canberra as a concert violinist, Festival director and staunch advocate for Australian music, has devised an event relating to some aspect of WW1 history and culture. In 2015, THE GALLIPOLI SYMPHONY assembled works by composers from Turkey, New Zealand and Australia, and premiered in Turkey where it was filmed and released on CD/DVD: http://www.gallipolisymphony.com/

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This year, THE DIGGER'S REQUIEM brought to a close the national commemoration of the centenary of ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps). Latham assembled nearly 300 performers - several soloists (including the extraordinary Paul Goodchild, principal trumpet in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra... pic), massed choirs and a full symphony orchestra, bolstered by players from the Band of the Royal Military College, Duntroon - to perform a 14-movement work lasting some 90 minutes. New pieces were commissioned from five of the leading composers of the near-senior generation: Elena Kats-Chernin, Nigel Westlake, Andrew Schultz, Graeme Koehne and Ross Edwards (pic), and Richard Mills, who was not at the performance.

At the end of the Edwards segment, there was a massive tintinnabulation of bells, not only the Federation Bells, cast for the 2001 Centenary of Federation, but also recordings of 62,000 other bells, one for each ANZAC slain on the battlefield.

It was a mammoth undertaking and, on the whole, worked extremely well. There were a number of theatrical flourishes and more muted touches: a solemn procession with gas lamps, the now familiar scattered carpet of red poppies, a lone bagpiper, and handbells surrounding the audience. At the close of the performance, many in the orchestra and audience were in tears. Those of us who could rose to give the performers (pic) a sustained ovation that lasted for several minutes.

It was a Very Canberra Event, befitting the dignity and solemnity of such an occasion in our national capital. The Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, signed a copy of the score (pic 4); he also spoke at the outset of the evening, as did the Ambassadors of France and Germany. Other diplomatic and government ministers and other officials were in abundance, also military people in full dress uniform. The entire event was co-commissioned by the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans' Affairs: that in itself surely has to be a first for Australian music!

A pity there seemed to be no official representation from the ANU School of Music and the local newspaper, The Canberra Times, did not deem it significant enough to cover. Shame, shame.

My full review is due to appear in THE AUSTRALIAN on Tuesday morning. I wanted to share the memory here while it it still white-hot and intense.

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AFTER-THOUGHT; I should have acknowledged here the great contribution by my old friend and photographer extraordinaire, Peter Hislop, who somehow manages to capture through his trusty lens every single concert in the national capital and regions. Many thanks, Peter. Thanks also for noting that the official War Historian, C.W.E.Bean (1879-1968), onetime WW1 war correspondent, seemed to have no interest in music; it wasn't his brief, nor in his thinking. Chris Latham pursued his avid researches widely in many collections around the world.

  • VINCENT PLUSH has just completed his PhD at the University of Adelaide and is moving to Melbourne where he will be a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is well known as a composer, writer, broadcaster and commentator on cultural events, both in Australia and in North America where he lived and worked for almost 20 years.

  • Vincent’s full review of the Diggers Requiem can be found in the Australian / Oct 9 2018.

Photos by Peter Hislop, and by Vincent Plush