Proof that the première of Katy Abbott’s Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender ticked all the boxes can be found in the many requests to have it included in Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s On Demand platform. Of the small handful in this category, this emotionally devastating work deserves to be at the top of the list in terms of importance.
Apart from the obvious boxes to tick such as quality of the composition and quality of the performance, we could add: by an Australian composer, by a female composer, a new work, and a socially relevant work that embraces wide community involvement.
The quality of the performance was pretty much a given. Flinders Quartet has long been established as one of Australia’s finest string quartets, and although Elizabeth Sellars replaced Thibaud Pavlovic Hobba (stranded in New South Wales due to COVID-19 travel restrictions) on first violin at relatively short notice, her outstanding musical talents and extensive experience enabled her to fit seamlessly into the ensemble, joining Wilma Smith (violin), Helen Ireland (viola) and Zoe Knighton (cello). Katy Abbott dedicated this second of a series of three Hidden Thoughts pieces to Flinders Quartet on the occasion of the Quartet’s 20th birthday, and this personal relationship between performers and composer added further collaborative intimacy to the occasion. The Quartet played with immense sensitivity, totally immersed in Abbott’s depiction of a heart-wrenching situation. Actor Richard Piper and mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd were no less committed and compelling as they revealed heartfelt messages sent to detainees.
Hidden Thoughts 2: Return to Sender found its origins in a request in 2013 by barrister Julian Burnside for Australians to write letters of comfort and hope to asylum seekers on Nauru. Each letter was forwarded with a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the detainees could reply to the sender if they wished. The following year, all but nine of the almost 2000 letters were returned unopened and marked “Return to sender”. Abbott regrets not having written her own letter at the time and welcomed the opportunity to unpack hundreds of letters and pay homage to Australians who sent words of encouragement and tried to share their lives in as vivid and empathetic way as they could.
The cumulative effect of hearing these kind words read and sung became increasingly poignant with the realization that yet another detainee was deprived of them. Divided into what appeared to be about twelve sections the concert began with the performers removing their masks and Richard Piper opening a letter to read, “This is a letter from one human being to another”. Quietly stroked chords punctuated by little quivering violin figures underlined the narrative. Dimity Shepherd’s entrance heralded the beginning of a fearless bravura performance of sung and spoken material. She possesses a vocal production encompassing an extraordinary range of colour; from pure top notes to earthy lower chest notes and even instrumental timbres that included a nasal evocative of reed instruments from the Middle East, her voice embodied the emotional resonance of the text. She assumed the vocal timbre of the letter writer – from young and unsophisticated to mature elderly. Richard Piper’s ability to convey different personas was similarly empowered by his expressive range and musicality. As a duet and as solo performers, they could not have done greater justice to Abbott’s work or the letter writers themselves.
For an Australian audience in particular, this selection of letters tends to coalesce into a nostalgic reminder of what it is to be an Australian. Along with expressions of sorrow and guilt, and even anger about the way asylum seekers are being treated, there are more mundane musings. Yet our ordinary lives are described in a way that places value and significance on small things. There are the inevitable comments on the weather – “I hate the heat” (while acknowledging the heat on Nauru suffered by the asylum seekers), descriptions of nature and the attractions of particular places: “Footscray is an interesting place”, “Wollongong is a beautiful place”. There is surfing, food, gardening, the cricket on TV, birdsong, and “I’m enclosing some photos”. But the dominant message is one of caring. Even the sad 20-year-old girl whose heart has been broken uses her sadness as a point of connection, “Though we are apart and I do not know you I care about you … I’ve been through heartbreak too”. The following section features a beautiful plaintive melody for solo cello punctuated by slides from other strings and a continuation of the melody on a throaty-toned solo violin. In addition to calling for extensive variation in instrumental colour, Abbott has the Quartet joining the readers/singers for the repeated chorus of “We welcome you here” as they play.
A powerfully emotional and complex work, Hidden Thoughts 2: Return to Sender bursts with subtle musical and textual detail It is a work both of its time and timeless. As many of us relate to the plight of detainees by experiencing our own comparatively insignificant restrictions on physical liberty, Abbott’s inspired work assumes special significance. It resonates at a visceral level.
In the program notes Abbott invites us to “sing the final movement with the performers and to add to the universal plea to welcome these people home”. Hopefully, many listeners will respond to Chris Howlett’s invitation to submit a personal recording of their efforts. Any detainee hearing this work would be tremendously moved at the love and support offered by so many Australians. As Chris Howlett pointed out, our cultural life has benefitted immeasurably from the valuable contributions of asylum seekers – including brilliant Melbourne pianist/educator/entrepreneur Hoang Pham.
Heather Leviston reviewed the premiere of Katy Abbott’s Hidden Thoughts II: Return to Sender, performed by Flinders Quartet and presented by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on July 23, 2020.
Photo: Wilma Smith, Julian Burnside and Zoe Knighton with returned letters. Photo supplied.