Australia Ensemble: Shostakovich, Schumann and murder

Last night to UNSW with P to hear the Australia Ensemble.

The program was:

Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975): String Quartet No 1 in C (1938)
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959): Bachianas brasileiras No 6 for flute and bass clarinet [originally bassoon] (1938)
Nigel WESTLAKE (b 1958): Entomology for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and tape (1990)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856): Piano Quintet in E flat Opus 44 (1842) – 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth

There are times at concerts when the practice of sitting in a room listening to some people playing instruments or singing out the front seems to me rather odd, and I wonder: “What am I doing here?” I had some such thoughts when watching Geoffrey Collins and Catherine McCorkill behind enormous sheaves of music and playing the Villa-Lobos. I just couldn’t get what the music was trying to get at; the flute part just had too many notes, and the moments of meeting between the flute and the bass clarinet seemed intermittent.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with the Shostakovich which opened the concert. It started intimately, rather inwardly: I was in no doubt why I was there and there was something even comforting as well as beautiful in the music’s embrace. And along with slow movements, I’m always a sucker for any muted strings, featured in the third movement. By the last movement, things were a little more unleashed and something more of the familiar struggling Shostakovich and “contending” string quartet style was in evidence for a virtuosic big finish.

The highlight of the concert for me, however, was the Schumann Piano Quintet. Right from the start, you know “this is real music.” I know that sounds reactionary, but I don’t really think this is to do with the comfort of a diatonic style. It really is to do with the strength and vigour of Schumann’s musical conception, which is there right from the movement’s forthright start.

Afterwards, P and I discussed the difference between this performance of the Schumann and the last time we heard the AE do it. We both agreed that the Steinway (as opposed to the Stuart piano) was a big factor. P thought it made some things better; I thought it raised the spectre of Schumann’s notorious tenor/alto register murkiness.

The first half closer, Entomology, was written by Nigel Westlake, who is a former clarinetist in the ensemble (I think he must have succeeded Murray Khouri and preceded whoever preceded Catherine McCorkill). Written in 1990 for the Seymour Ensemble, it uses a tape of insect noises but also some percussion. The tape has a kind of click track built into it to give the cues to the performers: in the middle section the tape, as far as I could gather, stops, and then restarts after a pause for the finish. It was quite jolly music, though for me this is a bit of a slippery slope, particularly once there are recorded instruments on the tape: why not put everyone on the tape and then we can just listen to it at home on the stereo?

As most people in Sydney are probably aware (P and I had discussed it in the car on the way to the concert), Nigel Westlake’s son, Eli, was killed in June 2008 by a woman who drove her car at and then over him. Sarah Ward was found guilty of murder this March after a four-week trial. She had offered to plead guilty to manslaughter but that had not been accepted by the prosecution. Eli was with a group of his friends, including his brother, on the street at St Leonards in the early hours of the morning. The woman and a friend had driven to a convenience store there. It seems that what triggered her rage was that Eli threw some cheese-balls at her car (from which I have assumed that he and his friends had likewise been to the convenience store – it is said that they were on the way home fromt the St Leonards tavern). This has led to the crime being tagged in headlines “the cheeseball murder.”

Ms Ward is yet to be sentenced. I expect that sentencing remarks will give a more precise account of what happened than has so far been published. From what I can gather, the whole trial was over the issue of what Ms Ward’s intent was. Under section 18 of the Crimes Act, you are guilty of murder if you did not actually intend to kill a person but you did intend to inflict grievous bodily harm upon some person (ie, not necessarily the person who ended up being killed). However, there is an element of legal fiction in that – that is to say it may not really hang on the accused’s actual intention, because in judging a person’s intention, the effects of intoxication are generally disregarded, and people are taken to have intended the usual consequences of their actions. Driving a car at someone usually or in a great many cases causes them grievous bodily harm – and it’s not as if Ms Ward just drove at Eli in a casual or accidental way.

Postscript

Justice Howie’s sentencing remarks can now be read here.

Whilst it is up to the jury to return the verdict, it is up to the judge to make more detailed findings of fact consistent with that verdict. Justice Howie’s account is at paragraphs 4 to 13 of the sentencing remarks. These are that the interaction between Eli, his brother Joel and another friend seems to have started with Ms Ward driving the wrong way down a one way street where Eli and his companions were walking on their way home from a pub. They said something to her, the cheeseballs were thrown, and from there the altercation escalated. Both sides were drunk, but Ms Ward and her companion seem to have been the ones who took the altercation to a higher level. They could always have just driven away, whatever was said. The passenger got out of the car to take the argument further at one point (and then retreated). Ms Ward also got out of the car later, and fell to the ground when Joel Westlake (Eli’s brother) retaliated when she was physically attacking him. The three young men walked away from the car to join their companions further away. It was Ms Ward who escalated the encounter to a fatal level by driving at Eli, not once, but twice.

It is a sobering reminder that you can never be too careful when dealing with strangers. You just don’t know who you are dealing with. As emerged on sentencing, Ms Ward had quite a history of “anger mismanagement” events, especially when drunk. Amongst other things, she had (when drunk) stabbed her then husband twice with a kitchen knife during an argument with him, when he was lying face down on a sofa. On another occasion she climbed through a window to assault a woman (who was lying on her bed) from whom she sought the repayment of some money.

Ms Ward said at the trial (as reported in the press at the time) that she did not mean to drive over Eli Westlake. She said her foot got stuck on one pedal or another and the passenger took hold of the wheel. That was a question for the jury and they must have rejected this account.

The sentencing remarks reveal that Ms Ward also mounted an (unsuccessful) defence under s 23A of the Crimes Act. This provides that if

“at the time of the acts or omissions causing the death concerned, the person’s capacity to understand events, or to judge whether the person’s actions were right or wrong, or to control himself or herself, was substantially impaired by an abnormality of mind arising from an underlying condition, and the impairment was so substantial as to warrant liability for murder being reduced to manslaughter”

the person is to be found guilty of manslaughter only.

The difficulty for Ms Ward with this defence was that there was some question as to the underlying condition (she was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar) and because she was intoxicated. The section requires that the effect of intoxication be disregarded.

It is a tragedy, for Eli and the Westlake family, but also, as Nigel has been quoted as saying, for the woman and her family.

The program bore a note that in support of the Westlake family the musicians of the Australia Ensemble dedicated the performance to the Smugglers of Light Foundation, which has been set up in Eli’s memory to assist indigenous musicians and promote the performance of community music.

2 Responses to “Australia Ensemble: Shostakovich, Schumann and murder”

  1. ken n Says:

    Thanks for that m – I used to be a regular at AE but have not been for some time. And for no good reason. Must return.

  2. Unnoticed notes « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] AE once before but was either too tired or too far away and found it all too much.  I suspect on that occasion, given that I don’t remember running into her there, she may have slipped away at interval, […]

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