Arcko Symphonic Ensemble: Chamber View 4

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Chamber View 4
Richmond Uniting Church
10 May, 2014

Every time a conservative party wins an election in Australia, or a social-democratic party sinks to new lows of cruelty in the treatment of asylum seekers, one would judge from social media that Australia were in danger of immanently losing its youth to New Zealand. Something of the sort did actually take effect in the late nineteenth century, when hundreds of disillusioned Australian workers set off to found William Lane’s socialist utopia, New Australia, in Paraguay. Showing that Australian progressives did not have a monopoly on racist national policy, the colonists beat them by some six years to the founding of a society based on racial exclusion. The collective floundered, split, and was eventually dissolved by the Paraguayan government. As does, quite intentionally, George Dreyfus’ setting of the settlers’ anthem “The Men of New Australia.” This opening of The Arcko Symphonic Project’s latest chamber music concert took us back a century to the brash marching rhythms, woodwind and brass of colonial music. The more resigned ending provides some wonderful antiphony between a lilting cello line and a mournful trumpet. It sounds like film music because it is, composed for Caroline Jones’ documentary And Their Ghosts may be Heard.

There are so many pieces about sounds of the Australian environment that they constitute a genre to themselves with their own history, forms, sonic palettes and, indeed, compositional clichés. As it happens, I lived in the Blue Mountains until I was seven years old, so feel particularly sympathetic to the genre, in particular to Wendy Hiscocks’ Rainforest Toccata for solo piano. Hiscock articulates soft thunder in the bass with chiming clusters in the treble reminiscent of bellbird song. Pianist Elizabeth Watson’s fluid, light touch lent the piece all the presence of the rainforest’s ozone-charged, pre-rain atmosphere.

After Hiscocks’ clusters, Elliot Gyger’s Threshold struck out across the piano into broader harmonic fields. The piece is a duet for two hands, with the rhythms and pitches of the two voices moving gradually together and apart. As probably the most romantic post-serial solo piano work, morse code messages representing Gyger’s name and that of his wife Catherine are written into the rhythmic material of each hand.

Nigel Butterley’s Laudes is a quietly busy work for mixed octet, reminiscent of the hushed, decorated interiors of four European churches and cathedrals visited by the composer. The piano, counting away in one corner, contrasts with the fluidity of gestures moving through the rest of the ensemble. The figures slowly coalesce into distinct instrumental sections like a religious procession at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare. The Apse, Norwich Cathedral is represented by a consistent movement from loud, staccato gestures to legato, piano textures. This foundational movement is punctuated by isolated outbursts like the building’s pillars and arches. The ensemble only truly awoke in the third movement when painting the vibrant stained glass and trumpeting angels of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

The relative lack of instrumental colour in Laudes was highlighted by the novel instrumental groupings of Tim Dargaville’s Invisible Dances. The composer doesn’t hide the piece’s dance rhythms quite so much as he claims in the programme, which keeps things lively (with the help of a drum kit). First the cello and piano play in duet, before focus moves to the flute and harp. All the while a mysterious whistling sound keeps the audience guessing (I still don’t know who was making it). The duets swept my corner of the audience away, digging deep into the bass registers of the instruments before shooting back up. It was a delight to end the concert on such a mosaic of finely-balanced, jewel-like miniatures.

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