Metropolis: Thomas Adès, Shadows

Thomas Adès, image courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre

Thomas Adès
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
20 April

Bringing jazz-inspired works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Adès together with the sensitivity and virtuosity of cellist Steven Isserlis, the final concert in the Metropolis New Music Festival celebrated contemporary compositional finesse.

Adès opened the concert conducting Niccolò Castiglioni’s Inverno In-ver. The wintry dance suite combines post-tonal transformations with the icy orchestral colours of celesta, woodwind, chimes and glockenspiel to create tableaux of racing snow and frosty stillness. Whereas some performers will complain that the results of some contemporary works do not warrant their difficulty, Castiglioni and Adès’ music may be compared in the dazzling surface-effects produced in their complexity.

A case in point being Adès’ jazz-era burlesques for orchestra from the opera Powder Her Face. Dripping with gritty sensuality, the excerpts harkened back not so much to the foxtrots and tangos of the 1930s, but to the sophisticated, self-aware, Weimar-era opera of Ernst Krenek and Kurt Weill.

Mark-Anthony Turnage draws on later jazz styles in his tour de force for cello, Kai. Confronting the audience with a deafening wood-clap, Kai proceeds to seduce them with a homage to the romantic cello concerto. A muted trumpet introduces the piece’s theme like a distant bugle call announcing the arrival of the jazz-cavalry. Each time the refrain returns on cello it is more desperate. It is a struggle for the cello to be heard above the ensemble, leading the cellist ever closer to the bridge with an ever-heavier bow and a correspondingly hyper-emotional sound. Then the shredding begins. Isserlis covers the cello, hair and all, like a 1980s speed-metal guitar guru.

Isserlis channeled a different kind of virtuosity for four of György Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, repeating each descending mode or two-note phrase as though it were a completely new thought. At times scarcely audible, the meditative whisper of the cello was almost drowned out by the hall’s creaking light fixtures.

Cybec finalist Lachlan Skipworth conjures a “solar drama” (to use a phrase of the Australian Mallarmé scholar Gardner Davies) out of the orchestra in Afterglow. Like the dying rays of the sun, a fanfare on tuba announces shimmering string colours, which build and dissipate in a dense crescendo. The chaos leaves behind a more transparent texture with a lyrical oboe line. Harp and piano can faintly be heard moving across the orchestral surface. It is as though the tuba has dipped behind the horizon of the strings and risen again as a silver moon, lighting the path of two wanderers.

What the Shadows programme gained in stylistic dexterity it lost in innovation. It is remarkable that the most contemporary-sounding work on the programme was by Castiglioni, a dead composer. By contrast, the rest of the works (Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages excepted) presented reworkings of bygone styles for the orchestra and large ensembles. Many works in the smaller Metropolis concerts gave a stronger sense of being not just “current” but “contemporary.”

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