Adelaide Festival review: Ngapa William Cooper

One man’s determination not to let injustice go unchallenged is at the heart of this extraordinary Adelaide Festival world premiere.

Mar 06, 2023, updated Apr 06, 2023
'Ngapa William Cooper' had its premiere at UKARIA Cultural Centre. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

'Ngapa William Cooper' had its premiere at UKARIA Cultural Centre. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

Peramangk-Kaurna elder Ivan-Tiwu Copley set the scene in his welcome to country, evoking the percussive shake of gum leaves that accompanied gatherings on the Mount Barker summit, in view of the UKARIA concert hall, for thousands of years.

Eucalyptus branches would be one of the instruments at play during this wonderful premiere performance of Ngapa William Cooper. On face value, it might be tempting to describe the song-cycle as a melting pot of influences, but that would underplay the genius integration of music, language, story and culture that illuminates a human passion for justice in a deeply moving and fresh way.

Yorta Yorta man Uncle William Cooper was an activist for his people in Victoria, with a universal vision of human rights. In December 1938, he led one of the only private protests anywhere in the world against the Nazis’ Kristallnacht atrocities. The poignancy of this protest, which culminated outside the German Consulate in Melbourne, is clear: Aboriginal people, like the Jews, were suffering dispossession, marginalisation and persecution.

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate artistic team to tell this story: Israeli-born singer-songwriter Lior and composer Nigel Westlake, who previously melded Islamic and Jewish musical traditions in their renowned work Compassion; Yorta Yorta singer and language activist Dr Lou Bennett, a descendant of Cooper, contributed lyrics in Yorta Yorta as well as being co-composer; writer Sarah Gory, an expert on Cooper, helped develop the lyrics.

On stage, Lior and Bennett were joined by the Australian String Quartet, pianist Andrea Lam, double bassist Kees Boersma, and Rebecca Lagos on numerous percussion instruments (including those gum-leaf branches).

The cycle begins with a “call to ancestors”: Lior and Bennett facing each other, the music evoking Hebrew and Aboriginal song traditions, with Yorta Yorta words by Bennett.

And then the ensemble joins, with all the cinematic drama audiences have come to expect from a Westlake score, as Lior and Bennett – whose voices are stunningly well matched – bring us into Cooper’s world in The News: he opens the newspaper to the horrible accounts of Jewish oppression, 20 years to the day after the Great War ended, the war in which his son Daniel had died. The music is a dramatic sweep, synthesising high chanting traditions redolent of Hebrew prayer, Indigenous themes of pain and loss, and finishing in almost pop-rock frenetic style.

In The Silence, the rattle of gum leaves joins dramatic string and piano work, as the singers channel Cooper’s resolve to not allow this injustice to pass, even though it is happening across the other side of the world. There are songs of family, and then the meeting of the Australian Aborigines League, which decided on the protest. In this piece, we first hear the recorded voice of Uncle Alf Turner, reading the words of William Cooper (later we hear Turner reading the original words of Cooper’s protest letter outside the closed gates of the German consulate).

The Protest is virtuosic and frenetic – 20th-century stylistic elements making it sound like the soundtrack to a mid-century film – before the anthemic At the End of My Days has Lior and Bennett soaring with the sentiment: “At the end of my days I want to know I spoke up when I saw wrong.”

With tears shining in her eyes, Bennett finishes in Yorta Yorta, a high chant that, like so much of this performance, feels both so specific and so universal.

This is a powerful and important work, musically quite challenging, but packing an unmistakable emotional punch. There were many tears in the sold-out crowd.

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The ASQ deserves acknowledgment for its outstanding work before the interval. Violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, violist Christopher Cartlidge and cellist Michael Dahlenburg gave an outstandingly visceral performance of Bryce Dessner’s intense work Aheym, the Yiddish word for Homeward.

The next work, Philip Glass’s third string quartet, Mishima, might seem like a strange choice to begin with, as the music was first composed for Paul Schrader’s 1985 film of the same name about the final day in the life of famous (and famously odd) Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Yet, the tonal landscape – those distinctive, intricately shifting, Glass arpeggios, finally opening out into a beautifully restrained melodic motif – did carve a very satisfying path to the explosion of music and emotion to come.

Ngapa William Cooper is playing a final performance at the Adelaide Town Hall, on Tuesday, March 7, at 7.30pm.

Read more 2023 Adelaide Festival reviews and stories here on InReview.

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