Below are some articles/blogs and reviews written by Anthony Lyons and published in Resonate – the magazine of the Australian Music Centre (AMC). The AMC is a tremendous source of information and connection to Australian music so please have a further look at the AMC site if you haven’t already. Any writings not re-published in full below can be found through the links provided back to Resonate and the AMC.

LINKS:

Australian Music Centre

Resonate Magazine

Anthony Lyons page with the AMC


All writings below © Australian Music Centre — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce these articles either online or in print.


 

Published in Resonate, 19 November 2015

Resonating Spaces: Rarotonga, Cook Islands

by Anthony Lyons

Image: Rarotonga, Anthony Lyons

I recently returned from an innovative project in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, which involved 20 Interactive Composition students and two documentary film makers from the University of Melbourne, working alongside local community, exploring issues of sustainability, climate change, site, history and community in response to locations and people of the Cook Islands. This culminated in the creation of 20 new sound and audiovisual compositions presented as a series of installations at the Punanga Nui Market - the largest event on the island, held each Saturday.

Mark Pollard, composer and Head of Interactive Composition, was the enthusiastic driver and visionary behind this project, and our group became a signature project to be supported by the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan - an initiative to nurture knowledge and cultural exchange between the Indo-Pacific region with Australia. I was thrilled to be involved as a fellow Interactive Composition academic staff member and participating composer.

The Cook Islands are an archipelago nation in the South Pacific, the largest of its 15 islands being Rarotonga, just over 30km in circumference, with a dense and elevated jungle interior, aqua blue lagoon and striking coral reef. With the exception of some recent arrivals (like the karaoke bar we discovered), Rarotonga retains a fairly strong connection to its historical, cultural and natural roots, particularly evident in the active singing, dancing and drumming traditions. Interestingly, Percy Grainger had been intrigued by Rarotonga over 100 years ago, often citing the influence of Rarotongan part singing on his compositional outlook.

Island allures, such as the excellent snorkelling, were overshadowed by a full schedule of daily activities with the generous Cook Islanders, including dance, singing and drumming workshops. We gave our own songwriting session at Tereora College, and the Interactive Composition cohort worked with small groups to write songs that were then performed. This was a moving experience for all, and we hope to make the songwriting workshop with Tereora an ongoing event. We also spent time in highland villages and were invited into family homes to share stories, histories, songs, and discussions over home-cooked recipes.

Early missionary influences run deep in Rarotonga, from the coral-white churches to the musical impact of Western hymn singing. Our attendance at local church services offered a first-hand experience of the Rarotongan singing approach, with members of one congregation treating us to an improvised performance. Along with the frequent use of sixths were vestiges perhaps of what had interested Grainger - a somewhat democratised polyphony based on the free entries and exits of individual parts, fused with a genuine sense of joy in the sound.

Our energy during this time was focused towards engagement and creative process ahead of the compositional deadlines of the Nui Market performance. We set firm compositional restrictions - not only did pieces need to be conceived, made and publicly realised over the ten days of the project, but only sound recorded from various locations on the island could be used as material. To this end, participants used handheld recorders, laptops, Bluetooth-enabled phones and Bluetooth speakers to record, create and sound the works on.

My own work, titled Anticlockwise, started with island sounds - the tinkling of coral pieces, log drumming, different rates of water flow, recorded and then transformed into sampled instruments. The relaxed notion of 'island time' and the strong sense of community began to inform the piece, in particular the transport system, essentially a couple of 1980s buses that circle the island, 'Clockwise' and 'Anticlockwise'. Riding these buses became a way to let go of time, for the conversations of locals and visitors to wash over you. The singing bus drivers, laughter, squeaking bus doors and all manner of rattles as they hurtled along at the top speed of 50km/h offered a sense of community and active interaction that seems so different to the transport experience of modern cities. The resulting work offered cyclic elements based on samples collected on the buses fused with manipulated log drum patterns and sampled instrument ambiences.

The final Nui Market installation/performance consisted of suspending speakers and screens throughout the market. The creative responses were very well received, sparking many conversations with locals. Unique as stand-alone works, when presented collectively they became a larger metawork, building up a fascinating sonic and visual mapping interaction with time and place.

I left Rarotonga affirmed by the importance of a shared engagement with places and cultures different to our own, and, in particular, sound - this magical glue between our senses, so crucial in broadening our perspective, connectivity and understanding. Arguably this kind of experience is becoming rarer in our increasingly globalised, city-based cultures. We are grateful to have had the opportunity and wish to acknowledge and sincerely thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne.

AMC resources

Mark Pollard - AMC profile
Anthony Lyons - AMC profile

Further links

Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne: Interactive Composition


 

Published in Resonate, 28 April 2011

The Pure Poetry Project

by Anthony Lyons

Image: Pure Poetry in Castlemaine 2010

Pure Poetry is the invention of Bronwyn Blaiklock, and was first staged in regional NSW at the Riverina Conservatorium in Wagga Wagga. The inaugural Pure Poetry celebrated the voice of women in contemporary Australian culture and was held on International Women's Day in 2004. Bronwyn invited the participation of Australian composer Ann Carr-Boyd in the Recital, which combined contemporary piano, viola, violin and cello repertoire with submissions of new writing from the poets living in the Riverina region.

Over the last couple of years a number of Pure Poetry concerts have been organised by Blaiklock and the Ballarat Writers Inc. The aim of these concerts has been to encourage the writing and performance of new Australian works in poetry and music and the concerts have been toured regionally through Victoria to a growing and enthusiastic following.

The format of previous Pure Poetry events has revolved around new works of poetry, read in performance, alongside the performance of contemporary Australian compositions. While relationships in the programming between pieces of music and poetry would happily emerge, there was not a deliberate attempt to creatively integrate the two art forms. Enter Pure Poetry 2011. This year, selected poets and composers have been asked to write specific new works in a two-part process. In the first part composers have been asked to musically respond to recently written poems, whilst poets have been asked to respond to recently composed works. The second part of the process is more of a direct collaboration where poet and composer work together to create a new work.

As one of the featured composers for this year's Pure Poetry event I have been working in collaboration with the award-winning poet Nathan Curnow. Nathan initially came to me with an image of an abandoned chocolate factory at the end of the world and asked 'Do you think we can make something of this?' We've since developed this image into a work tentatively titled The Last Chocolate Factory, for narrator, music box, flute, cello, piano, and electronics. It is a strongly narrative work, full of Nathan's powerful images and metaphors. It's kind of Mad Max meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Hansel and Gretel - a morality tale about the pitfalls of greed, and of course, chocolate. (No irony lost as I munched on too many chocolate eggs whilst finishing the score over the Easter period).

There are a number of challenges that arise in this kind of collaboration, and for me they generally stem from where to place music - what proportions or sections of the work should just be music, or just be spoken text, or be text and music combined? Nathan who is an experienced performer of his own work is use to grappling with two layers of rhythm - the internal literary rhythm of his written text and the rhythm of his spoken delivery. These are not always the same as I've discovered. Add music to spoken text and you obviously have another rhythmic layer or implication. Nathan will be the narrator for the premiere performance, so it's been wonderful to work with him from this perspective also. Each time we've met to work on the piece, rhythm, balance and density of sound are elements we've both adjusted to maintain the overall flow and cadence of the work.

Some of the other works of mine written for the Pure Poetry event include Lace Frequencies for flute and electronics which is a reflection upon Ross Gillett's poem Death of a Dragonfly, and a work for cello and electronics called We string out along the sand which is a response to Nathan Curnow's Dead Penguins. There will also be works by Brenton Broadstock, Suzie Camm and Ross Edwards, among others. The various sound and text interactions of the Pure Poetry Project for 2011 will take place at the Ballarat Art Gallery on the 21st May.

Event details

Pure Poetry Recital
Saturday, 21 May 2011, 7.00pm
Oddie Room, Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria
Full details - see the AMC Calendar

Further links

The Ballarat Writers (www.ballaratwriters.com)
Anthony Lyons
(AMC profile)
Anthony Lyons (www.alyonsmusic.com)
Nathan Curnow: (www.wordplay.org.au/writers/nathan-curnow)

© Australian Music Centre (2011) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.


 

Published in Resonate, 18 December 2009

ANAM: Ligeti, Haydn, Dean

Melbourne // VIC // 21.11.2009

by Anthony Lyons


The line of people trying to attend this ANAM concert at the South Melbourne Town Hall extended out the door and into a hot and rain-soaked Melbourne evening. Standing-room-only concerts can be a rare thing, and it is perhaps testament to the continued fortitude and spirit shown by ANAM that a warm, anticipatory and celebratory atmosphere permeated the audience. Alongside György Ligeti's Cello Concerto and Joseph Haydn's Symphony no. 82, this concert also witnessed the eagerly awaited Australian premiere of Brett Dean's Grawemeyer Award-winning violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing.

A last-minute program reshuffle saw Ligeti's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966) open the evening. Ligeti's work is in two continuous movements, and it is one of introverted virtuosity, expressed through extreme subtleties of timbral colour and dynamic nuance. Among some of the shimmering textural approaches Ligeti is known for, the Cello Concerto begins and contains sections at the limits of audibility. The role of the cello in this work is like that of a coloured thread, weaving intricately through the surrounding instrumental fabric.

As the fidgeting and settling of the audience subsided, the cello of soloist Sharon Draper imperceptibly made its presence felt. Draper moved in and out of the surrounding instrumental textures with ease, revealing a secure and balanced tone colour. Ligeti's concerto opens up like a flower, and Draper met the exposed high harmonics near the end of the first movement with skill and a sustained musicality.

The orchestral playing was generally of a high standard also. Brett Dean as conductor helped give the luminosity of tone colours adequate space to breathe. Swelling dynamics, tremolos, harp attacks coinciding with sustained string entries and the general transferral of tone colours were handled with the necessary energised restraint and control.

While the South Melbourne Town Hall is a beautiful concert space, the real issues with the performance of the cello concerto had to do with the noise of rain falling on the roof, audience members flapping their programs to fan themselves because of the heat, and the difficulty in actually seeing the musicians if you were seated half-way back in the audience.

Haydn's Symphony No.82 (1786) was given a lively rendition, complete with standing string players and an open, vigorous sound. The orchestra generally moved as one organism, at times flamboyantly exaggerating dynamics and colouristic contrasts in the music. Despite a high level of ensemble precision, there were moments in the first movement where intonation slipped slightly in the strings before control was regained. However, first violin and director Paul Wright did a fine overall job in shaping the energy of the performance. There was a seemingly deliberate false end flourish to the work with bows poised in the air which started the audience clapping - before the true finish came shortly after. The orchestra worked hard at engaging the audience in this performance and the sustained applause they received was certainly well deserved.

Following the interval was Brett Dean's The Lost Art of Letter Writing (2006). Dean's inspiration behind the work was drawn from a concern of declining literacy levels and a diminished power of written communication in a digitised age. Dean frames the work as a response to these concerns through four movements, based on 19th-century letters. These letters range from private love letter to public manifesto. The first movement 'Hamburg 1854' references socially forbidden love in a letter from Johannes Brahms to Clara Schumann, the second movement 'The Hague 1882' takes it cue from a line by Vincent Van Gogh, reflecting upon nature as being a true companion through life's troubles, the third movement 'Vienna 1886' is based upon a frank outpouring from Hugo Wolf to a friend, while the fourth movement 'Jerilderie 1879' is Ned Kelly's famous letter protesting innocence and a desire for justice.

Dean's concerto is an energy juggernaut, full of complex amalgams of shifting orchestral texture, fantastic crescendos, and, in the outer movements at least, a relentless rhythmic drive. The role of the violin through all this is alternately both one of author and recipient of the letters, and Dean draws heavily upon the expressive capabilities of the solo violin to express the emotional outpourings. Abrasive double stops, slides, harmonics and general fingerboard gymnastics are all de rigueur. The moments of stillness and tenderness rarely last long before activity, density and momentum take over.

Young violinist Kristian Winther was more than up to the challenge of the concerto, revealing a remarkably centered yet passionate delivery. Winther's technical control and stamina were impressive, particularly once settled into the work past the first movement. Dean as conductor, held the reins mostly in check. However, at times the orchestral dynamic and intensity threatened to overpower the violin, and Dean seemed to motion regularly to the orchestra to contain the dynamic balance.

The entire concerto is swimming in constantly present and evolving textures. While the overall effect is one of mood rather than clear narrative, the final movement propels itself forward through passages of considerable virtuosity and reflects a sense of the impending catastrophe inherent in Kelly's Jerilderie document. The dramatic arc of the concerto ends with a powerful climax.

The audience response to Dean's concerto was overwhelmingly positive with the performance receiving a standing ovation. Dean relinquishes his position with ANAM next year and the loud applause resonating through the town hall seemed equally directed at his impact on the institution as its excellent musicians and a night of fine music making.

Event details

Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM)
Music by Ligeti, Haydn and Brett Dean
21 November 1009
South Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, VIC

Further links

Brett Dean - AMC profile
ANAM (www.anam.com.au)

© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.


 

Published in Resonate, 3 September 2009

Quiver

Melbourne // VIC // 31.07.2009

by Anthony Lyons

image: Quiver

 A large and diverse audience crammed into the Richmond Uniting Church for the Quiver Ensemble's most ambitious concert to date. Formed early in 2009, Quiver's young musicians have been developing a broad and open aesthetic centred on exploring sound through performance, improvisation, and installation. The program focussed on works exploring different approaches to colour and timbre. Alongside compositions by George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Harrison Birtwistle and Conlon Nancarrow, were two world premieres by Australian composers Warren Burt and Luke Paulding.

Despite the murmurings of Friday evening traffic wafting through the thin walls and the uncomfortable reality of sitting on hard church pews, Quiver managed to establish a warm and inviting atmosphere to the concert. The low-lit, softly coloured lighting design of Travis Hodgson did much to assist, and helped set an evolving mood for each piece.

The opening work was Toru Takemitsu's Rain Spell (1983), for harp, flute, clarinet, piano and vibraphone. Comprised of a series of organically related episodes, the work calls on different amalgams of instrumental timbre and gradations of colour from the quintet of instruments. Takemitsu used a proportional scoring approach to this work, yet it is full of the exacting detail he is known for. The harp is required to tune in quarter-tones for five notes in the middle and bass registers, while the flute and clarinet are often assigned intricate changing multiphonics and timbral trills.

In performance, the ensemble took a few minutes to work their way into Takemitsu's Rain Spell. However, they soon settled and displayed great ensemble skill in rendering the work with the necessary subtle blends and manipulations of timbre. Takemitsu's notions of 'liquid form' and 'sea of tonality' can sometimes result in performances of his work that lack a sense of directional coherence. But Quiver showed an understanding of the composition at the localised and macro levels which helped to define an overall shape. Dynamic control and energy transfer between the ensemble members was generally excellent.

Following the Takemitsu was an arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow's Player Piano Etude No. 18 (1977), for violin (Zac Johnston) and piano (Luke Paulding). It wasn't just the late György Ligeti who has been intrigued with Nancarrow's kinetic-based compositions. Among contemporary composers, performers and their audiences, it has become more common to see attempts to translate Nancarrow's once seemingly unplayable works to live performance. For this arrangement, the players each connected an earphone to an iPod. I can only imagine that what was on the iPod was some kind of backing that assisted them in locking into their respective parts of near impossible rhythmic precision. This work was as thrilling to watch as it was to listen to, with the audience wondering whether the two complex lines of canonic interplay would fall apart. The concentration and confidence of the duo held firm and the momentum of the work concluded with a perfect rhythmic unison attack. Particularly impressive was the violin of Zac Johnston whose pizzicato virtuosity traversed the entire scope of the instrument.

Next on the program was George Crumb's Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1965), for alto flute, clarinet, violin and piano. A very different work to the Nancarrow, Crumb's work contains a plethora of delicate timbral effects - from fifth partial piano harmonics, to vocalised text fragments, to amplification and colouration of the winds through sympathetic vibrations as they play into the piano, and violin playing with the bow hairs completely loosened. Quiver simply gave a sublime performance of this work. Crumb's eleven 'echoes' were treated with the right amount of control, balance and sense of musical space to work their charms. Toward the end of the work the violin plays a section of very soft and exposed artificial harmonic glissandi. Even a braking tram outside and its metallic screech seemed unable to disrupt the beautiful atmosphere created by the ensemble for this work.

Harrison Birtwistle's Linoi (1968) followed the Crumb. Written for clarinet and piano, this was perhaps the most intimate of all the works on the program. Linoi is structured in an arc that moves from a spacious opening with lengthening melodic strains to a more frenzied and densely textured middle section and back again. Giving voice to the refined timbral colours of the clarinet, Aviva Endean moved effortlessly from lines of subdued lyrical beauty to intense syncopations. The piano of Luke Paulding deserves recognition also for its secure support, placement of sound and the thunderously violent strums on the inside of the piano strings in the middle of the piece.

A new work by Warren Burt titled Bass Drum, Vibraphone, Voice and Electronics (2009) followed and acted as a punctuation point in the concert. Burt's work opened with a pounding bass drum figure, interspersed with brazen comic-book quotes yelled from the lips of percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott (who, by the way, was wearing sunglasses and some sort of glam 1970s cape, as well as being positioned high above the church's altar with a spotlight on him). This was initially jarring, following the almost meditative mood set up by the earlier pieces, but the quirky theatricality of the piece ended up working extremely well at this stage in the program. Schack-Arnott delivered a theatrically and musically captivating performance.

The second part of Burt's work was far more sedate, combining 'realised electronics' with fluid chordal textures from the vibraphone. What the connections were between the two different parts of Burt's composition was a little lost on me - perhaps juxtaposition was the point, with the second part providing a moment of reflection? I'm unsure how the piece would stand on its own, but in the context of the other works being explored in this concert, it was highly effective at injecting a contrasting energy into the overall concert flow.

The final piece of the evening was a new work from emerging composer and Quiver ensemble member Luke Paulding. Titled her sparkling flesh in a saecular ecstasy (2009), it was written for flute and alto flute, clarinet and bass clarinet, tuba and percussion. According to Paulding, the title of the work takes its inspiration from a poem by Richard Wilbur and the work unfolds through a series of intense instrumental dialogues throughout the quartet, 'at points converging with poetic grace, at other times provoking individual instruments to explode into chaotic splendour'. In effect, this was a return to the texture-based writing and complex rhythmic interplay of some of the earlier works, however Paulding's sound world consisted of deconstructing instrumental sounds to produce new and fascinating timbres. The flutes of Rebecca Lane, clarinets of Aviva Endean and tuba of composer Luke Paulding became sound generators producing air sounds, pops, sucks, hisses and clicks. Percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott was asked to play everything including the kitchen sink: oven grills, vials of water and bowed polystyrene. The risk in a work such as this is that the multitude of sonic material doesn't lead anywhere, but Paulding's piece revealed an engaging directional structure from the timbral fragments. Percussionist and Elision Ensemble member Peter Neville took up conducting duties and assisted in keeping all the complex rhythms and energy flowing.

At the conclusion of Paulding's work, Quiver received sustained and deserved applause. This had at times been a challenging program, yet Quiver had sought and produced synergies between the performed works. It would have been nice to have experienced the harp of Jess Fotinos in more than just the first piece, but this is a minor quibble. Overall, each composition presented in this concert was treated with precision, vigour and great expression. Quiver managed to maintain a focussed musicality and passionate engagement throughout.

The next Quiver concert, 'Dichroic Sound', is planned for November and will focus on works which incorporate live video.

Event details

Quiver New Music Ensemble
Aviva Endean (clarinets), Jess Fotinos (harp), Zac Johnston (violin), Rebecca Lane (flutes), Matthias Schack-Arnott (percussion), Luke Paulding (piano/tuba), Peter Neville (conductor), Travis Hodgson (lighting design)
Works by George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Harrison Birtwistle, Conlon Nancarrow, Warren Burt and Luke Paulding.
Richmond Uniting Church, Melbourne, VIC
31 July 2009
Event details in the AMC Calendar

© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.


 

Published in Resonate, 27 May 2009

Rembrandt's Wife

Melbourne // VIC // 24.04.2009

by Anthony Lyons

The Victorian Opera commissioned and recently premiered the new chamber opera Rembrandt’s Wife at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. Composed by Andrew Ford with a libretto by Sue Smith, this partnership and successful production resulted in a series of performances that were well attended and enthusiastically received.

The actual lives of artists are often as fascinating a subject matter as the artwork they produce, and this sombre but engaging examination of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s life aimed to explore the themes and motivations behind the artist. Librettist Sue Smith (perhaps more widely known as a screenwriter, whose credits include the ABC mini series Brides of Christ and Bastard Boys) has produced a libretto that principally examines Rembrandt through the relationships he had with the three central women in his life.

Set in Holland in a repressed 17th-century Calvinist world of plague and poverty, the libretto and drama of the opera unfolds following the death of Rembrandt’s first wife Saskia (Jacqueline Porter) and recounts his haunting visions, loneliness and grief. Rembrandt finds temporary solace in a relationship with Geertje Dircx (Roxane Hislop), his son’s nurse, but he eventually betrays and institutionalises her on a false allegation. This allows him to pursue his final muse, Hendrickje Stoffels (also played by Jacqueline Porter), made famous in Rembrandt’s portrait of Bathsheba at her toilet (1654). Throughout this part of Rembrandt’s life, he is falling from fashion in the Dutch art 'scene' and struggling financially to the extent that he ends up selling Saskia’s gravestone. Morally tarnished and destitute, Rembrandt refuses to bend to the vicissitudes of the day, retaining an artistic defiance to bourgeoisie convention and respectability at great personal cost to himself and especially to those close to him.

Love, passion, conflict, jealousy and despair – these are the elements of opera, and what Smith’s libretto and Ford’s music provide is a clear narrative and musically attractive flow and cadence over the work’s 75 minutes for them to play out in. Smith’s libretto benefits from a screenwriter’s concise story-telling abilities, yet it is not without its poetic moments and mysteries. Historically interpretative choices have been made in order to shape the drama and reveal thematic undercurrents, yet remain subtle. Smith claims to be interested in such questions as ‘whether great art justifies bad behaviour’ The libretto manages to leave such questions thought-provokingly open for the audience to ponder.

Ford’s music marries well to the libretto and shows the benefits of a considered and successful collaboration process. The score is unashamedly accessible throughout, though tightly crafted and compositionally engaging. A nine-piece mixed ensemble was used and distinctive melodic and rhythmic interest was generated early on and continued through the performance. The colouristic scope of the music also did much to move the emotional layering of the characters forward, and there were moments of rich lyricism – particularly between Rembrandt and Saskia – that left a resonating impact. Of note were ‘The girl in the summer hat’ and the quartet ‘Death is walking in my shadow’. Near the opera’s end, his fall from grace complete, Rembrandt sings ‘his ox-life was big as the sky’ – a poignantly sad but beautiful moment. It has been some time since I have been able to distinctly remember melodic sections of music from a contemporary opera following its performance.

VO musical director and conductor Richard Gill deserves credit for the precision, vigour and depth of musical understanding brought to the performance. Among the performers themselves, Gary Rowley as Rembrandt managed to maintain a consistency of characterisation and vocal technique throughout long sections of the work, moving between intensity and tenderness. Other performances were generally solid and diction generally clear (this was put to the test when the surtitles went offline once or twice). Roxane Hislop as the betrayed Geertje and Paul Biencourt (performing a number of minor roles), were each noteworthy for injecting energy and individuality into the role of their characters.

The set design showed a clear attempt to physically reflect aspects of Rembrandt’s psychological landscape, though I remain a little undecided on its overall impact. The use of shadow and dim lighting certainly evoked the atmosphere of a Rembrandt canvas. However, mounds of ochre-coloured dirt representing Rembrandt’s paint palette, and an even larger mound of dirt representing Saskia’s grave, while giving the set a textured, topographical quality, risked looking a little amateurish. Furthermore, despite subtle shifts in lighting and positioning within the set, the sparseness of design perhaps remained a little too static throughout. That said, Talya Masel’s overall direction managed to draw all the design elements together in such a way as to prevent visual fatigue and maintain interest and adequate momentum.

New opera is rarely an easy beast, yet this first production of Rembrandt’s Wife offers much. The libretto and music in particular present a rich tapestry of emotions and themes whose threads have been carefully woven together. Perhaps great art does not exonerate bad behaviour, but the opera does leave one with a considerable degree of sympathy for Rembrandt. At the very least Rembrandt’s Wife manages to successfully engage the audience in its inner world, especially the mind-set of Rembrandt during his darkest days. What results is a memorable and lyrical new work, worthy of future performances.

Event details

Rembrandt's Wife
Sue Smith, libretto
Andrew Ford, composer
Victorian Opera, The Malthouse, Melbourne, Vic
24 April 2009 (premiere 18 April)

Further links

Sue Smith: Never confuse a genius with a saint - a blog on Resonate
Andrew Ford - AMC (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/ford-andrew)
Libretto of Rembrandt's Wife (www.andrewford.net.au/pdfs/rembrandtswife_libretto.pdf)
Victorian Opera (www.victorianopera.com.au/)

© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.


 

Published in Resonate, 15 April 2009

MSO Chamber Players: Hall of Mirrors

Melbourne // VIC // 22.03.09

by Anthony Lyons

The Iwaki Auditorium was full to capacity for the first concert for 2009 by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players. Aiming to present intimate performances as well as highlight the excellent individual abilities of MSO musicians, this side project of the orchestra has become a success since its inception a few years ago. In this first concert in a series of four planned for the year, the Chamber Players presented established works by Szymanowski, Saint-Saëns, and a new work by the MSO’s 2009 composer in residence, Brenton Broadstock.

Opening the concert was Karol Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 37. Composed between 1917 and 1919, the quartet is a lush and focussed work, written during a turbulent period in Szymanowski’s life. At times reflective and romantic, the quartet also features a number of techniques employed by Szymanowski to render a boldly modernist stretching of traditional tonality. Among these were the evident polytonal techniques of the last movement, and the plentiful use of colouristic instrumental effects such as bowing on the bridge, tremolos and flute-like harmonics. The MSO Chamber Players did well to balance the many timbral effects that are so integral to defining Szymanowski’s sound-world. Many of his fleeting ideas and visions were effectively realised at a localised level, while not distracting from the overarching structural direction of the work. Performance highlights included the lyricism of violinist Isin Cakmakcioglu’s high-register playing.

Following the interval was the only new work on offer in the program - Brenton Broadstock’s Hall of Mirrors (2009). Written for trombone, flute, clarinet, string quintet and percussion, this was a programmatic work that explored the concept of a musical hall of mirrors. Invited to introduce the work, Broadstock explained how the spatial and visual confounding of the senses, experienced when walking through a traditional hall of mirrors at a fun fair or amusement park, was the inspiration behind the work. In Broadstock’s piece, the composed musical hall of mirrors features the trombone as the cental protagonist who ‘moves through the hall, reacting with and against and dominating and driving the constantly changing musical material’.

Hall of Mirrors opened with a soft string texture of harmonic trills and glissandi, punctuated with the swells of bowed cymbals from percussionist Robert Clarke. Against this backdrop the trombone entered the tapestry of sonic reflections, providing muted melodic fragments and long slow glissandi – all beautifully controlled and balanced by the MSO’s principal trombonist Brett Kelly.

As the work developed, Hall of Mirrors revealed itself to be characterised by constantly changing instrumental colours and a strong sense of rhythmic propulsion. Broadstock displayed an excellent understanding of the expressive capabilities of the trombone, and the work successfully exploited the instrument's wonderful, singing quality. At times I would have liked to have heard a little more punch from the strings. This is not so much a criticism of the players but more an acknowledgement of the difficulties in blend and balance, posed by the instrumentation of the work. In the louder passages the dominant characteristics of the trombone and percussion against the lighter strings and winds occasionally threatened the ensemble balance.

Hall of Mirrors was very well received by the audience. The overall result seemed an effective and engaging realisation of Broadstock’s compositional intent. This was an accessible and enjoyable work, yet one also exhibiting a high level of craft and sophisticated engagement with its subject matter.

It was actually a little disappointing to have to step back in time and listen to Saint-Saëns’s Septet, Op. 65 (1880), the concluding work of the concert. The piece was written at the behest of the mathematician and music lover Emile Lemoine, who asked Saint-Saëns to include a trumpet in a chamber work. After initial reluctance, Saint-Saëns settled on trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano.

In performance the MSO Chamber Players were generally convincing in their traversing of the work and its four movements. The trumpet of Geoffrey Payne tended to feature, moving with relative ease from fanfare-like passages to smooth, lyrical lines, blended in unison with the strings. However, although equally well received by the audience and adequately played by the Chamber Players, the septet lacked the vigour of the preceding work. Despite being wedged between the Szymanowski and Saint-Saëns, it was Broadstock's Hall of Mirrors that gave this concert a sense of unity and resonating interest.

The next MSO Chamber Players concert is scheduled for 14th of June and will feature works for string quintet. Brenton Broadstock continues as composer in residence at the MSO, and among his upcoming works is a concerto for trumpet and orchestra due for premiere in September.

Event details

MSO Chamber Players
'Hall of Mirrors'
Isin Cakmakcioglu, Sarah Curro, Christine Johnson, Roger Young (violins), Gabrielle Hosking, Isabel Morse (violas), Miranda Brockman, Sarah Morse (cellos), Sylvia Hosking (double bass), Wendy Clarke (flutes), Philip Arkinstall (clarinets), Geoffrey Payne (trumpet), Brett Kelly (trombone), Robert Clarke (percussion), Kenji Fujimura (piano).
22 March 2009
Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne, VIC

Further links

Brenton Broadstock - AMC
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra - www.mso.com.au

© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.


 

Published in Resonate, 30 January 2009

Golden Fur New Music Project

Melbourne // VIC // 21.12.2008

by Anthony Lyons

image: Golden Fur

This debut concert of the new Melbourne-based group Golden Fur was the first in a series that will continue through 2009. It presented five rarely performed contemporary works by Helmut Lachenmann, Morton Feldman, Jaap Blonk and Australians Robert Rooney and Marco Fusinato.

Billed as a concert that would 're-imagine chamber music in the realms of experimental music and the avant-garde', the group’s ambitious program had a special focus on different approaches to notation and interpretation. The chosen works swung from the formalism of strictly scored music to improvised musical responses to visual art. Augmenting this approach was a healthy dose of theatricality, prepared instruments, amplification, computers and a number of special guests.

Formed in 2007, Golden Fur is a trio comprised of composer James Rushford (piano, viola), Judith Hamann (cello, voice, harp) and Sam Dunscombe (clarinets, laptop). These young musicians have inhabited the worlds of chamber music and the local indie/experimental scene in Melbourne for some time now – each building a solid audience following, based on their uncompromising musical explorations and superb musicianship. These qualities were on display tonight, and the debut concert was well attended by a diverse and expectant audience.

Opening the concert was German composer Helmut Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto (1988), for piano, cello and clarinet. A difficult and at times intense work, the trio brought a strongly focussed energy and detailed understanding to Lachenmann’s demanding musical language.

In Allegro Sostenuto, Lachenmann’s sound world is one of sonic rubble, noise, layered attacks and decays explored through unconventional approaches to acoustic instrumental techniques. A detailed array of toneless clarinet whispers and shrieks, cello body percussion and  playing inside the piano were executed with conviction and a precision of timbral balance and rhythmic control. The trio rightly interpreted Lachenmann’s work as being about the sonic transference of colour, resonance and decay between the instruments, and they were able to navigate the complexities of the notation to reveal a structural sense overall. This level of controlled intensity was maintained for the work's half-hour duration and the result was a stunning opening performance.

Interval followed the Lachenmann, and if the trio needed a short break after the consuming Allegro Sostenuto, so did the audience! The second half of the concert commenced with the premiere of Parallel Collisions (2008) by Melbourne-based multidisciplinary artist Marco Fusinato. The work conjured explosions of sound-energy from the trio, driven by a score consisting of a series of artwork images printed on large cards that the musicians responded to. According to the program notes, these images were diverse and ranged from the 'sound pictures' of Greek composer Anestis Logothetis to volcanic eruptions, abstract eyes, imaginary landscapes, political riots, splats, kapows!, atomic explosions, and stills from The Simpsons.

The visual approach of Parallel Collisions allowed the trio to delight in many weird and wonderful instrumental sound responses to Fusinato’s images – showing their creative and improvisatory abilities. Some beautiful textured moments resulted. However, given that the work sought an active synthesis of sound and visual art, it was disappointing that the audience were not actually privy to the artwork as the trio played through them. Experiencing the same visual context as the trio would have helped provide greater cohesion and shape to the performance.

Morton Feldman’s 3 Clarinets, Cello and Piano (1973) provided a change in mood and approach to the previous works. Joining the trio were the additional clarinets of Aviva Endean and Brigid Burke. Woven together through repeated patterns, Feldman’s tapestry of colour and texture provided a necessary aural resting point in the concert program. The performance was again assured, but lighting could have been better used to support the spirit of the work and enhance the change in atmosphere.

Robert Rooney’s Duos 1.2.3 (1965) for any wind, string and percussion instrument followed next in the program. Rooney is an Australian visual artist and was one of the first Australians to be identified with the pop art movement. Although perhaps best known as a painter, he has worked in many mediums, including sound.

In Duos 1.2.3, Rooney’s graphic score becomes a way to investigate aleatory, or 'chance' procedures, as well as providing a general launching point for improvisation. In each of the Duos movements, two performers interpret the graphic score while another improvises. In performance, the trio appeared to relish the structured improvisation opportunities afforded by Rooney’s fluid score and they used their full arsenal of clarinet, cello, harp, piano and laptop in doing so. At times it was difficult to discern the 'lead' improviser from the generally dense textures, yet the overall effect was generally effective with some beautiful moments.

The concluding work in the program was Plopland (2007) by Jaap Blonk. The trio decided to interpret Blonk’s graphic score, written for 'any instrumentation', through the ritual of a 'drinking game'. Another seven to eight guests joined the trio around a large table and out came the liquor and cups. According to the program notes 'two teams compete around a table flipping cups, and selected sounds are electronically processed and responded to in real-time. All performers randomly interact with the visual cues in the score, resulting in cacophony'. Amplified in performance, this 'cacophony' ended up sounding something like a jet engine.

Although Plopland was a fun and conceptually interesting piece, it was a little difficult in the audience to clearly follow what was going on during the performance. More favourable lighting, better positioning within the space, and having an idea of the visual cues affecting the flipping of the cups would have all helped to make this a more audience-inclusive end to the concert. In performance approach, compositional process and sound result, the concert had moved a long way from the earlier prescribed rigours of Lachenmann.

The Golden Fur Trio are to be congratulated for their bold and enthusiastic programming of contemporary compositions. In performance, the trio displayed a versatile intelligence and totally engaging musicality in their approach to the diverse, and at times challenging, sonic terrain. Particularly notable was the outstanding interpretation of Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto. Future concerts in the series will see the performance of newly commissioned works by Australian composers, including Kate Neal, Anthony Pateras, and Alex Garsden, as well as the performance of a few 'modern classics' such as George Crumb’s Black Angels. Stay tuned.

 

Event details

Golden Fur New Music Project
21 December 2008
Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, Melbourne, VIC

Further links

Golden Fur New Music Project (www.myspace.com/goldenfur)

© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.


 

Published in Resonate, 27 November 2008

ANAM: Gordon Kerry Commissions

Melbourne // VIC // 21.11.2008

by Anthony Lyons

image: Gordon Kerry

The South Melbourne Town Hall is a large space for small chamber works, and you might imagine that occasionally passing police sirens, distant tram track rumblings and the heavy air of controversy and uncertainty afflicting the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) at present would do a concert of new works little favour. In actual fact, what resulted was a remarkably intimate and engaging concert – a testament to the synergy between performer, composer and audience.

Brett Dean, the Artistic Director of ANAM, introduced the Kerry Commissions concert with a few well-chosen and spirited words in defence of the Academy, before warmly welcoming composer Gordon Kerry. As composer in residence, Kerry has spent the past few months working closely with some of ANAM’s most gifted students in producing a body of new works. Four of these works were presented – Nocturne, Martian Snow, Silent Film and Nunc Dimittis.

The trio Nocturne, for clarinet (Mitchell Berick), viola (James Munro), and piano (Elina Yasumoto), was the first piece performed, successfully setting the mood for the entire concert. Commencing with only the pianist and violist on stage, the off-stage clarinetist provided veiled lontano lines of colour that gradually melded into the trio texture. Although concealing musicians from the audience’s view carries the risk of being more theatrical than musically effective, the manoeuvre seemed quite natural and justifiable when Mitchell Berick eventually appeared on stage to visually complete the trio.

Kerry’s Nocturne revealed a darkish post-impressionistic harmonic palette, regularly punctuated with ripples of light that the trio did well to bring out. Compositionally, there was a lot of sonic transference between the parts, and all three instrumentalists displayed high musicality in their smooth exchanges and dovetailing of colour lines. This well-crafted composition ended with the warm tones of James Munro’s solo viola, convincingly encapsulating the still and contemplative mood of the overall work and performance.

According to Kerry, the next work, Martian Snow for violin and piano, was inspired by recent news that the Mars Rover had discovered snow falling from Martian clouds. Struck by this image, Kerry composed another well-crafted work with strong harmonic and gestural flow, within which the passing of musical fragments could at times be likened to falling and intermingling snow particles. The strong sense of atmosphere created in the work also highlights the fine calibre of performance from pianist Peter de Jager and violinist Monique Lapins, who each brought the audience along with every nuanced note. It’s always nice to hear a violinist who can turn a series of artificial harmonics into a phrase.

The third work was Silent Film for piano solo. With his choice of an open and non-specific title, Kerry claimed his intention was to give the artist scope to find something for themself within the composition. What pianist Aura Go found was lyricism and sensuality, a precision of touch, and beautifully controlled tone. Built upon a series of unfolding chords established early in the piece, Silent Film displayed evident craft and sophisticated compositional process, yet maintained a somewhat impromptu feel throughout. The work explored gesture, colour and pianism.

Concluding the program was Nunc Dimittis for oboe and cor anglais. Although the choice of instrumentation and program order initially made this piece seem a little out of place amongst piano- and string-based works, Gordon Kerry’s words prior to the performance imbued the work with a strongly linked context. The work had in fact been written especially for this concert, as stoical encouragement to the students and teachers at ANAM in an hour of uncertainty. Kerry used the Latin title Nunc Dimittis for the work – a title drawn from the second chapter of Luke and traditionally used as a prayer for evening worship: ‘Let us go in peace for the future is in good hands’.

In keeping with this sentiment, this final work was again evidence of a strongly composed and performed musicality. The oboe of Annabelle Badcock and cor anglais playing of Amelia Coleman produced a beautiful round tone, displaying an ability to harness the acoustical properties of the space. At times rhythmic unison entries were slightly off, perhaps due more to the slow speaking nature of these instruments, but in general the beautiful flowing liquid lines these musicians produced helped to enhance the sonic direction of the work.

At the end of the concert, composer Gordon Kerry and all of the exceptional young performers received long and deserved applause. Against a difficult backdrop of questions and concerns over the fate of ANAM, this was a concert with no pretensions, just beautifully composed and performed NEW music.

Event details

Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM)
The Academy@1
Gordon Kerry Commissions
Friday 21 November
South Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, VIC

Further links

Gordon Kerry (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=320)
ANAM (www.anam.com.au/)

© Australian Music Centre (2008) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.