BIFEM: Opening Concert, Argonaut Strings

Opening Concert
Argonaut Strings
The Capital Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
8:00pm, 5 September

Given that so little new music for strings is performed in Australia, a major concert dedicated to the genre was well overdue. BIFEM’s private stash of instrumentalists, the Argonaut Ensemble, was gradually augmented as the concert progressed from a violin solo to a work for thirteen players. This poetic gesture was coupled with a progressive exploration of the range of sounds and techniques available on the instruments, ranging from simple timbral studies to expansive works combining the wide range of colours of the string orchestra with thematic writing.

The concert opened with the oldest piece in the festival, Jean Barraqué’s Sonate pour violon seul from 1949. With trance-like serenity, Graeme Jennings brought the sonata to the stage of the Bendio Capital Theatre like an apparition from the past. Written in the composer’s early serialist style, the piece seems to speak a long-lost language of attacks and articulations. Though composed while Barraqué was a student of Olivier Messiaen, it was thought to have been lost until its rediscovery in 2009 making it a paradoxically contemporary work. The festival was dotted with such curiosities that helped one take stock of the breadth of the last century of music that we still like to call “contemporary” or “new.”

Back to the twenty-first century and Francisco Huguet’s Damora was the first of many “one-idea” pieces that would become a point of contention in Saturday’s discussion panel “Duration and Durability.” Like Barraqué’s sonata, Damora‘s inclusion has a certain pedagogical intent. The piece distils the two extremes of bow pressure that dominate contemporary string writing: shimmering, whispering light bowing and creaking, crunching heavy bowing. To begin with, the double bass and violin duo trill while scrubbing back and forth across the strings, producing a complex warbling effect. This sound transitions into a more strident chordal texture including many chiming harmonics. The overall effect is dirty and fragile, full of the fruity bow sound that the nineteenth century worked so hard to conceal and that composers revel in today.

The almost inaudible scraping of bow on string or grinding pressure would become familiar introductory sequences throughout the festival and Marielle Groven’s trio Je ne vois qu’infini par toutes les fenêtres [I see only infinity through all of the windows] was no exception. Groven explored the techniques up and down the strings, from the fingerboard to the bridge. Three little flutters in unison in the middle of the piece provided a focal point around which the complex of sound coalesced.

Expanding the ensemble’s forces to a septet, the Parisian conductor Maxime Pascal (recently lauded by a chocolate company in Salzburg) entered to conduct David Chisholm’s Jonestown Threnody. Jonestown Threnody is one of the composer’s many “requiem” pieces, though rarely does a requiem depict in quite so chilling a manner the death of its subject. The initial chaos of moans and squeals from the strings is shockingly similar—possibly even more shocking in its aesthetic amplification of the sounds—to the existing recordings of the mass suicide (many would say mass murder) of 918 people in 1978. Chisholm’s morbid fascination with the sound leads to variations with wide vibrato, disintegrating descending lines and some thematic imitation.

Liza Lim’s Gothic follows nicely from Chisholm’s because both composers use melodic material as one of many techniques in their incredibly dense musical environments. Lim is without doubt the contemporary master of declamatory, melodic invention. Pascal brought out the dynamic shapes Lim uses to bring her lines to life, giving the ensemble more than enough to work with in terms of physical gesture.

Then came the standout work of the concert, perhaps even of the festival: Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. As Pascal explained to the audience, the piece is characteristic of Vivier’s work with its ceremonial or ritualistic form, its exploration of colour and its development from a single melody (a technique adopted from Stockhausen, one of Vivier’s teachers). Zipangu was one of the names for Japan at the time of Marco Polo and the string orchestra is divided into two sides, who take turns invoking (Pascal mused) the spirit of Marco Polo with their incantations coloured by varieties of bow pressure and position. The addition of violinist Rada Hadjikostova-Schleuter seemed to have an electrifying effect on the orchestra, especially when she would launch into her muscular rendition of the piece’s recurring violin solo.

You can listen back to the whole concert online thanks to ABC Classic FM.

Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

 

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