The Grigoryan brothers pay tribute to the Tasmanian wilderness in this awe-inspiring concerto

The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is set to perform Nigel Westlake’s stunning ode to our island’s ancient rainforests.

By Stephanie Eslake, TSO News April 2023

The North West of lutruwita/Tasmania is home to a cool-temperature rainforest – the second-largest in the world. Leatherwood, myrtle, and Huon pine trees are abundant in this area known as takayna/Tarkine. The species found in this wilderness are so old, they can be linked back to the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana.

So when you’re talking about millennia, it certainly makes a quarter of a century seem like a small amount of time in comparison. But as far as friendships go in the here-and-now, 25 years is nevertheless impressive, and this is the number of years in which composer Nigel Westlake and guitarist Slava Grigoryan have come together to produce some of Australia’s most evocative music. The artists’ recent collaboration Toward Takayna will be showcased in a Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra event honouring this stunning rainforest and the musicians’ admiration for the environment.

“For Lenny and myself – and obviously for Nigel as well – Tasmania is an incredibly important place,” Slava says. He will perform this concerto for two guitars with his brother Leonard Grigoryan.

“It’s somewhere we absolutely adore being, visiting, playing, working with other people, and we’ve got a long history of doing that there.”

Slava and Leonard have toured Tasmania since the early 2000s, exploring the region during their travels from Queenstown to the coastal village of Stanley. Between these places are roads that can take you on journey around the Tarkine’s 477,000 hectares of wilderness.

“The isolation, the beauty of it, the density of it – there are a lot of things that make you really think about that area,” the guitarist notes.

“Then you’ve got the areas that have been mined and turned over, and there’s the combination of seeing the lunar landscape in certain areas – and what this could actually all turn into is incredibly confronting.”

The region was first home to the Tasmanian Aboriginal tarkiner people, who inhabited the land for 40,000 years. takayna/Tarkine has been mined for resources since the 1870s, and the historic Mount Lyell Mine is largely responsible for the lunar landscape to which Slava refers.

Environmental observations underpin Toward Takayna. Slava notes how activist Bob Brown flew in for the premiere, calling the work “a spellbinding tribute to the beauty and wonder of Australia’s largest temperate rainforest in the Tarkine wilderness…twenty minutes of lilting, uplifting music”.

Despite the subject matter, Toward Takayna was not premiered in Tasmania: it was first intended to be written and performed at the 2020 Adelaide Guitar Festival, of which Slava is director. The premiere was cancelled due to the pandemic – but much to the surprise of the artists, Nigel decided to go ahead and compose the piece anyway.

“He knows how to write for the guitar so well, and he knows what we can do. We’ve obviously had that relationship for such a long time,” Slava says.

“[It] was very much a piece that was ready and beautiful, and certainly in terms of the thematic material it was something so special to be a part of.”

When playing Toward Takayna, Slava likes to visualise the physical environment. He likes to imagine and remember how it feels to be immersed in this awe-inspiring landscape.

“It’s very natural, very real, and a very honest response to how we feel about the place.”

One of their previous collaborations was an ode to the natural world: Antarctica – Suite for Guitar and Orchestra, which Slava and the TSO performed in 2021 under the baton of Johannes Fritzsch. Just as he did in Antarctica, Nigel uses guitar as a medium that can evoke the wonder of the wild. In Toward Takayna, it’s the “earthiness, woodiness, and percussiveness” of the instrument that conjures these feelings, Slava believes.

“I think the piece itself is evocative and beautiful, and it wants to depict the rarity and the beauty of this place. It’s as simple as that.”

While Nigel conducted its premiere, Benjamin Northey will now lead the TSO through its Tasmanian premiere. With other conductors, Slava would offer insights into the music and instrument that may help guide an interpretation – but not with Benjamin.

“Ben is the conductor I think is closest to Nigel… In fact, when Nigel was getting ready to conduct properly for the first time, he was spending a lot of time with Ben on conducting techniques.

“Ben definitely feels like the other cog in the machine that is Westlake’s music, because he’s been so involved for such a long time.

“So with Ben, we don’t have to say much. It just happens naturally.”

The same could perhaps be said of Slava’s relationship to the TSO – an orchestra that produces a sound he’d know anywhere in the world.

“There’s something that’s incredibly recognisable, incredibly special about what the TSO does from a purely technical perspective. And that’s always been a pleasure to experience and to collaborate with.”

Not only has Slava performed with the TSO – he has also worked with them in the recording studio. In 2008, they played on ABC Classics album Baroque Guitar Concertos (also with Benjamin Northey at the helm). It was nominated for Best Classical Album at the ARIA Awards.

“I know so many musicians from overseas that I’ve toured with and collaborated with who have never worked with Australian orchestras, but know the TSO and know their recordings.

“That’s something that’s a credit to the orchestra, and I think a very valuable asset – and I’m sure it’s one that’s only going to keep on growing and building.”

Buy your tickets to hear Slava and Leonard Grigoryan playing Nigel Westlake’s Toward Takayna in Tarkine/Takayna, 6pm May 4 in the Federation Concert Hall, nipaluna/Hobart.