It was a hot night in the Refectory of the historic Holme Building on Tuesday 12 March 2019, which hosted the solo instrumental section of the 2019 Palladian Cup. There was standing room only. The room was filled with the voices of College students who had turned out in force to support the two candidates from each of their own Colleges. The St John’s College contingent numbered about 70 students, and was possibly the largest of the night. As each St John’s candidate appeared on stage, they rose to their feet as one, clapping, stamping and shouting in support, easily drowning out the supporters from the other colleges.
John’s had fielded two brilliant musicians for the event: Harley Coleman on electric guitar, and Xavier Lynch on classical piano. Both are first years this year. Harley is studying for his degree in music at the Conservatorium, specialising in guitar, and Xavier studied piano performance for his HSC last year at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst.
The standard of performance was extremely high. One brave saxophone player from Paul’s with a sense of humour gave a short, jaunty performance on his sax which could be measured in seconds. But all the other performances were at concert standard. It was a very serious and competitive affair. Particularly surprising (to me, at least) was the overwhelming preponderance of highly trained classical musicians on piano, violin, viola, clarinet and double bass – two players, no less. Many were obviously studying at the Conservatorium, and right on top of their game. Felix Wallis and I felt relieved to have selected Harley, who would provide a welcome contrast to all these classical acts.
Stephen Witts, from John’s, was our compere for the evening. With great aplomb, he introduced the judges’ panel of internationally known musicians. It was nice to see a Johnsperson in control.
The first act was Cassie Parke from Sancta, who played Gershwin’s Prelude no 1 on piano. It was a brilliant and flawless performance. She was followed by Caitlin Duncombe (Wesley) playing Bloch’s Rhapsodie on viola, with tremendous technique. Then it was Harley’s turn. Cool as a cucumber, he sauntered onto the stage with two mates, a drummer and a pizzicato double bass. There followed a very cool performance of Victor Young’s ‘Stella by Starlight’, in which Harley freely improvised his own riffs on electric guitar over a series of laid-back chords, giving an almost nightclub atmosphere to the whole event, and ending the act with a virtuosic solo coda. There was nothing else like it that evening.
Prominent among the acts that followed were William Lind (Paul’s) on piano, playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Op 23; Clare Fox (Women’s) who played a brilliant clarinet solo; Tom Hunt (Drews) who performed and composed his own “Celestial Blues” on piano, Lucy Clarke-Randazzo (Sancta) who played Vivaldi’s “Winter” from the Four Seasons on violin, and two amazing double bass players – Julia Magri (Women’s) and Adrian Whitehall (Drew’s) who played classical works by Koussevitsy and Bottesini that I had never heard before.
Star of the show, however, was our own Xavier Lynch. He interpreted Debussy’s famous “Reflets sur l’eau” (Reflections in the water) on piano. Though entirely classical – Debussy is associated with the Impressionist movement, and died in Paris during its bombardment in the First World War – Xavier’s performance was like no other that night. He used Debussy’s interplay of introspective reflection and sparkling ripples on the water’s surface to wring from his instrument a cavalcade of emotions – from light to dark, from quiet to exuberant, from tragic to triumphant. It was as if the piano was an extension of himself – a mere tool for the expression of his own mind. His technique was brilliant, true, but expressiveness of his performance was unequalled that evening, and the judges rewarded it.
After a considerable interval, they announced their decision. Highly commended, to Harley Coleman. (The John’s contingent absolutely erupted.) Third place, to Lucy Clarke-Randazzi (Sancta) for the Vivaldi. Second place, to Clare Fox (Women’s) for her clarinet solo. And then – first place – to Xavier Lynch, for the Debussy! The John’s contingent could not contain themselves. After the endless cheering, clapping and hugging had died down, they formed a circle round their two victorious musicians, and there followed the John’s victory chant – louder and longer than anything that had gone before.
So far as I can recall, this is the first time that we have both won the solo instrumental competition, and had both candidates achieving a place. This puts John’s firmly on the map. Let’s make it a tradition.