Album Title: John Antill - Corroboree / An Outback Overture
Performers: James Judd / New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Label and #: Naxos 8.570241
Play Time:
Recorded: June 2006

John Antill (1904-1986) was born in Sydney, Australia and spotted as an early musical prodigy by the great Arthur Benjamin. Much later, he entered the New South Wales State Conservatorium to study composition with Alfred Hill, one of the leading Australian composers. Antill was equally eloquent as vocalist, conductor and clarinetist apart from being an accomplished composer. He joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the early 1930s and until his retirement in 1969, by and large influenced if not determined much of the music-making policies for the country through his long service with the various governmental offices
that included the Federal Music Editor for the Commission. Some criticized his conservatism for shutting off Australia from exciting global musical movements over thirty years.

So, is Antill's music that boring? Interestingly, this CD proves otherwise. Antill's oeuvre includes operas; ballets; concertos; chamber, orchestral and vocal works; and no less than twenty documentary film scores. Surprisingly, a lot of them were not published during his life time. In 1946, Antill completed his ballet Corroboree and decided to destroy all his previous works. Those included twelve string quartets. That tells us something about how much he valued this particular piece. Corroboree is the dance ceremony of the Aboriginals. Antill attended one such ceremony as early as 1913. He took extensive notes and did even more extensive research on aboriginal music afterwards. The outcome was some forty minutes of authentic Australian music performed by modern symphonic orchestra and aboriginal instruments. The conductor Eugene Goossens (also one of the earliest to record Stravinsky's Rite of Spring) declared it "authentic Australian". Some critics even equated it with the Rite. Antill claimed that he had never heard Stravinsky's shock of the century before he composed Corroboree. How authentically Australian this ballet is I'm no judge. But it's certainly a far cry from Stravinsky.

The seven movements all bear programmatic titles. Though infiltrated by primitivism, the work never reaches the beastly fever of the Rite of Spring until the last movement. Antill's orchestration is inventive as well as descriptive. The "Welcome Ceremony" entices listeners with intricate rhythmic percussions and mysterious contrabassoon while the shrieking
woodwinds mimic jungle birds. Celesta and violins paint a dreamlike "Dance to the Evening Star", triangle and the oboe suggesting interplay between twinkling star and silky clouds. In "A Rain Dance", the xylophone and tympani seem to never quite concur on the bar line but make the dripping sound ever more pulsating. "Spirit of the Wind" swirls around with fluty screeches that sound almost like a medicine man's chant.

"Rising Sun" is an amusing dance of the macabre before daybreak and what could be more bone-baring than a piano with trumpets? "The Morning Star" is a snappy wake-up call for all forest crawlies and I bet you'll hear the rattling snake among them. As I've hinted at, "Procession of the Totems" and "Closing Ceremony" are the wild card with high impact. Be forewarned of the wild bull charging performed by the bullroarer, an aboriginal instrument that gives intense vibrato sometimes used to demonstrate the Doppler effect.

The Outback Overture of 1954 was composed for a royal visit. Antill did not follow suit with pomp and circumstances but wittily disguised English folk songs with modern harmonies and (Australian?) humor. I was a little surprised that this was performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra instead of an Australian orchestra. Under the baton of James Judd, it is unquestionably a command performance particularly with the Corroboree, an extremely challenging work in its own right. Forty minutes of orchestral showpieces with picturesque moods and imagery require no less attention to detail than a profound symphony. Judd and his NZSO did that with communicative spontaneity and technical brilliance. Now, who says you can't impress your friends with a Naxos audio demo?