Smart Outsmarts the Odds

by Becky Llewellyn – April 2001

It’s about 100kms from Wrest Point Casino to Pt Arthur, but the April Fools Day 10 Days on an Island free open-air concert proved that Aussie ingenuity and sheer guts prevails when the odds are stacked against you.

Gabriella Smart always knew there was risk in her proposed concert plan – performing contemporary piano pieces in a cathedral with no roof at Port Arthur. The beautiful stone hewn walls lost their roof in a bushfire a century ago. What is left is a poignant visual monument surrounded by massive trees. These trees, glimpsed through vaulted glassless window spaces, stand as sentinels, witnesses to cruelties and miseries, ministering to the memories and whispers embedded in the stones.

Dark storm clouds loomed at the beginning of the concert, where Gabriella began her concert named Quiet This Metal with Tchaikovsky’s Dumka. A crowd of 50-60 people had gathered in the cathedral to see the large piano on a small wooden stage, flanked by two black-garbed assistants holding black umbrellas. People and families of all ages sat on central boardwalk, the grass, hugged the walls and clogged the entry portal.

Rain began pelting down, cold wind gusted as Gabriella played the expressive, moving music. More people came in, others moved to shelter against the walls, but few left. The surprise was the magic intimate acoustic created by this cathedral domed only by the grey sky.

As she stood for her first bow, her assistants wiped the piano keys, shut the open lid and laid a red velvet wrap over the Yamaha grand. Then a silver plastic wrapped over the whole piano, bar the keys. This new Christo-like art object completed the Magritte surrealist scene – dark sky, two umbrellas neatly providing a concert roof for Gabriella, who performed in front of a beautifully shaped cathedral window stained only with natural green vistas.

When no one left in spite of getting wet, she decided to play on, launching into Shostakovich. And play she did, through continuing bursts of showers – strongly, tenderly, caressing sounds from her wrapped instrument that riveted her audience. Wind howled occasionally, soughing through vast clumps of leaves, sometimes eddying around the music which was held tightly by another black-clad page-turner.

Yellow autumn leaves filtered down into the cathedral, floating and turning, natural eddies flowing over the sound. A few landed, touchingly, on the keyboard. Startling large parrots, red heads and yellow bellies, swooped in pairs like comets, spreading  arcs of colour through the large sanctuary window space behind the piano. Once aloft in their tree behind it, their chatter syncopated the piano’s percussive energy. Children played quietly outside the thick walls and listened inside them. A young girl sat tranquilly just outside the side door while her mother fed her white liquid through a tube into her stomach, rain misting over the scene.

If the ghost of Shakespeare had been there with all the other ghosts, he may have well appreciated the informal atmosphere of this open aperture performing space. There was a sense of freedom to choose to stay, not staying because it was comfy and all lined up in rows and the tickets had cost you. No, Gabriella’s audience stayed, drawn by the magnetism of her talent, her commitment to her music – her expression, phrasing, attack and articulation opening spaces for listeners to meditate in that great ruin of a cathedral.

There is no other venue quite like this in Australia, loaded with so much pathos yet beauty. There perhaps will never be quite such weather as this, nor such a crowd listening to a program of mainly new Australian music by John Polglase, David Harris, Becky Llewellyn and Carl Vine.

My joy, as one of the composers present, was to feel her, a shaman in that place of sorrow, take her audience to a redemptive space – a space where solace, beauty and proportion propelled new energy and creativity. She held them there, from two-year olds to very olds. Gabriella finished the concert with Vine’s Bagatelles and rubbed her freezing hands to begin thawing them as the crowd cheered her – a determined, vivacious musician who beat the odds and won our hearts.