Arianna on a Bridge of Stars

Peter de Jager is among the most versatile and virtuosic young Australian pianists, as much at home in a baroque ensemble as he is playing one of Chris Dench’s more difficult works. De Jager is also an imaginative composer, a skill that he showcased in the concert Arianna on a Bridge of Stars by contrasting two brand new works with compositions by Brett Dean and Claudio Monteverdi.

The audience was first serenaded by the French horn of Georgia Ioakimidis-MacDougall, a prolific young performer who is currently completing her fellowship with the Australian National Academy of Music. In the solo horn piece Arianna Meandering, fragments of Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna pass through convoluted chromatic territory, displacing the audience from the MRC salon to another realm. It was an excellent preparation for Dean’s captivating Night Window, which celebrated its twentieth birthday last year. A remarkable aspect of the concert was that the vintage Dean sounded characteristic of De Jager’s spiky, muscular repertoire, while the De Jager sounded like one of Dean’s more moderate contemporary works! Like Carter’s Night Fantasies and Richard Meale’s Incredible Floridas, Night Windows has an unmistakable creative optimism that shines through the musical bureaucracy. Why would someone move on from that? The performance was, of course, the day of Gough Whitlam’s death and I couldn’t help getting a little emotional about the lack of creative vision in both politics and music today. We now find ourselves more in the condition of the piece’s fourth episode, where a bunch of quibbling, nibbling little lines eat away at the piece’s integrity. Towards the end of the piece, a descending line in the bass clarinet and viola reflects one of the most recognisable baroque gestures of mourning and loss. It was a well-placed segue, as Hana Crisp proceeded to sing the Lamento d’Arianna, the only surviving fragment from Monteverdi’s second opera L’Arianna.

The finale was De Jager’s extended work Model Universes. To help follow the piece, De Jager provided the audience with a sheet of notational fragments grouped into five categories: architecture, cosmos, nature, machine and city. Each motif had an evocative label like “serene polygon birds trace arcs through a pearly sky,” “a sculpture forest of towering monoliths,” and my favourite, “wandering the universe on a bridge of stars, passing fountain-like galaxies, each a spray of mint and lime.” Now, it is not impossible that De Jager actually swims in a 256-colour sea-punk sonic fantasy. An apocryphal story: Somebody turns to De Jager and says “I can’t find a harmony for this line.” De Jager responds “you can turn it off?” But some of De Jager’s ideas struggled to convince. I certainly do not have a permanently-harmonising chorus in my head, but I felt that the relationship between the voice and the ensemble suffered from too many long vocal lines over fast-moving instrumental material. The voice rarely joined the fray, leaving it commenting from one side of the room. Or perhaps, continuing the bad-photoshop theme, the voice was awkwardly superimposed over the electric-blue background. On my sheet, I have written ticks all over the “nature” section, in particular the ecstatic polyphony of quaver triplets and crotchet downward glissandi. The gloss reads “a frothing, teeming membrane of cells, splitting, merging, mutating, and eventually bursting after an ambush by an army of phages. The joyful dance of life spirals on.”

Arianna on a Bridge of Stars
The Melbourne Recital Centre
21 October, 2014
Programme: Peter de Jager, Arianna Meandering (WP); Brett Dean, Night Window; Monteverdi, Lamento d’Arianna; Peter de Jager, Model Universes (WP).

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