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Published: 19th September, 2018

There was an excited buzz in the crowded foyer of the Melbourne Recital Centre as people lined up to buy the latest CD issued by the Hush Foundation. This 18thedition, written in response to the Hush Foundation’s aim of providing support for those experiencing tense healthcare situations, features original works by 12 Australian composers played by ACO Collective.

Also on sale was The Hush Treasure Book. Published in 2015, it is a collection of stories poems and pictures from some of Australia’s favourite storytellers and illustrators. I immediately turned to a piece by one of my own favourite authors of children’s picture books, Bob Graham. True to form, he has produced a concise, moving tale featuring a dog and human kindness. There was something of the Leunig sensibility at play in that tiny tale and a similar appreciation of the things that surround us that we can easily take for granted. There is hardly a page that does not feature an animal and nature in its bounty. At the back of the book is a CD of works selected from previous Hush CDs. It is a beautiful book that I can heartily recommend.

As Guest Presenter, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey punctuated the concert with interviews with a number of people, chief among them Dr Cath Crock AM, coordinator of bone marrow and lumbar puncture procedures for children with cancer at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital. Witnessing how scary hospitals can be for sick children and their families, she has sought to enrich healthcare environments through music and the arts. Staff and other visitors experiencing this stressful situation also benefit from her initiative.

Dr Crock’s brief to composers is summed up in the program notes: “You need music that is going to bring a feeling of calm and optimism to the space, without winding people up and making them more stressed”. Six of Australia’s most notable established composers mentored six emerging composers to produce this year’s CD, an arrangement that mirrored the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s own practice. On this occasion, Principal Violin Helena Rathbone, along with three other core members of the ACO, led some of Australia’s most talented emerging string players, some of whom are current students at our Australian National Academy of Music. It is remarkable that within a week the 17-strong string ensemble managed to rehearse, record and perform in concert new works by twelve different composers at such a high standard. In addition to the professional brilliance of their mentors, doubtless the less experienced players found further inspiration in the project itself.

The compositions themselves sported titles that reflected some of the preoccupations of the storybook. Nature was a recurring theme. How could you resist Maria Grenfell’s fanciful title Knitting Unicorns? And, yes, there were a few delightful knitted unicorns on the foyer table. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were certain recurring effects employed by the composers: beginning and ending very softly with an increase of volume and excitement in the middle; lots of plucked strings; soft, ethereal harmonics and slides.

I’m not sure that all listeners would find all parts of all compositions devoid of tension, but some compositions did strike me as particularly soothing. A response to any piece of music is a personal thing, but Elena Kats-Chernins’s Moon Feather Magic certainly raised my spirits. Her harmonic shifts and trademark musical devices were exactly what I would have liked to hear when my own child was in hospital. She is a true “feel-good” composer in the best sense. Paul Stanhope’s Dancing on Clouds was another work to raise the spirits and Olivia Bettina Davies’ Crystalline impressed with its heartbeat strokes. Stuart Greenbaum, his protégée Caerwen Martin, and Matthew Hindson were informative in conversation with Northey and offered imaginative musical responses.

Although not all of these short compositions may have been ideal listening material for the hospital environment, they all offer a valuable listening experience, especially as realized by ACO Collective. Having them committed to CD for a wider audience to enjoy is a bonus.