Medley Hall Recital Series
1 June, 2014
Jennifer Higdon, DASH
Charles Hoag, SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag
Ian Whitney, Tanzendanses
Iain Grandage, The Keep
Charles Ives, Largo
Paul Dean, Fragmented Journeys
Plexus’ first concert at Medley Hall gives me the opportunity to introduce both a new ensemble and a new venue to Partial Durations. Though new to this site, both have fascinating histories that informed a multifaceted night of contemporary music. Plexus follow the instrumentation of the Verdehr Trio founded in 1972: violin, clarinet and piano. They also follow the Verdehr tradition of commissioning new work for the (now not so) neglected ensemble. The Verdehr Trio commissioned works by some of the most important composers of the late twentieth century, including the well-known Australians composers Peter Sculthorpe and Barry Conyngham.
Now a standard piece of repertoire, Jennifer Higdon’s DASH offered plenty of opportunities for the ensemble to show off. Rushing syncopations between the violin (Monica Curro) and clarinet (Philip Arkinstall) and siren-like rhythmic ostinati in the piano (Stefan Cassomenos) create a charged atmosphere that culminates in hockets between the instruments like the flashing lights of police cars. From the beginning it was evident that Plexus do not hold back, even in a room as small and live as Medley Hall.
After charging the room with this incredible sound, Plexus moved on to an older Verdehr commission: Charles Hoag’s SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag. The piece is absolutely charming, demonstrating a refined compositional culture that plays on tropes and clichés with absolute self-aware mastery. The heads, moments of great jubilation, separate darker, brooding movements.
Iain Grandage provided the ensemble with an excerpt from his opera The Keep, which is partly an attempt to rediscover the folk tales of Grandage’s Anglo-Celtic heritage. Grandage is certainly not the first Australian composer to attempt this reconnection through music (I’m thinking of Fritz Hart and Percy Grainger). Would it be completely amiss to say that we witness this phenomenon at times of great uncertainty about Australia’s future? This is certainly not to say that Grandage shares any of Hart or Grainger’s views, but at times when the contingency of belonging in Australia is laid bare by political or environmental crisis, people start searching inwards as well as outwards for a sense of stability.
Cassomenos, speaking with much character and equal portions of false modesty explained playing Charles Ives’ Largo for violin, clarinet and piano as “like early music.” The funny thing is that Ives’ music can so often sound like the newest thing on the programme. The room really came into its own with this piece. Arkinstall’s perfectly-voiced clarinet line embraced the audience and Curro was able to make the most of the piece’s final, transcendent violin note.
In keeping with the philosophy of the ensemble, the concert included a recent commission by an Australian composer: Paul Dean’s Fragmented Journeys. Originally intended as a joke (is there a more worn-out journalistic cliché than talking about musical “journeys”?), the piece did in fact end up reflecting four journeys that the composer and his friends had variously taken. The first movement, “Fraught,” was particularly welcome as the first example of a “flat” texture in the whole concert. That is to say, the instruments were given equal importance, whereas elsewhere there was generally a principal voice and accompaniment. Here one found a punctum from the piano here, a warble from the clarinet there, or some frenetic scrubbing from the violin. The movement gains momentum, but is spiky from beginning to end, like rolling down a hill of thistles. I think this fits the description Dean provides of the movement depicting “a journey which I just didn’t want to take!” “An Unwanted Disturbance” is really quite iike DASH until the clarinet (piloted expertly by Arkinstall, though you’d want to, playing a piece of Dean’s in front of the man) enters and climbs ever higher and louder. “A Turn for the Worse” depicts a visit to a nursing home, and judging from the creepy piano noodling and see-sawing violin Dean felt a little uneasy from the start. When the booming piano chords and screeching clarinet enter, one knows that the situation only deteriorated. Given these experiences I can only suggest that Dean restrict himself to musical journeys from here on.
Medley Hall could well be the most unique music venue in Melbourne. Since its construction in 1893 on one of the most affluent streets in Melbourne (it was built for the widow of an arms dealer), it has variously been an Arbitration Office, an Italian club (hosting weekly boxing matches), home of a vigneron who graced one of the stained-glass windows with a bullet hole, the set of a Nicolas Cage film and, now, a residential college. Craftsmen and materials for the ornate Victorian Baroque parlor used for concerts, as well as the rest of the mansion, were imported from Italy. Just saying, if you are looking for a space for your next chamber music concert, Medley would be a great place to start. As to Plexus, I can only look forward to their next forty years of activity.
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.