Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Nostalghia

Metropolis audiences enjoyed a week of chamber music before the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert of the festival. It was a pleasure to hear contemporary music writ large after becoming accustomed to the tight-knit intensity of chamber music. Under the baton of guest conductor André de Ridder, the orchestra takes diverse and stimulating approaches towards the festival’s theme of “music inspired by the moving image.” De Ridder has also taken the opportunity to introduce Australian audiences to the young composers represented by the Bedroom Community label. De Ridder even brought the cellist Oliver Coates—a Bedroom Community veteran—along for the ride.

Tōru Takemitsu, Nostalghia “in memory of Andrei Tarkovsky”

Rather than fill the programme with music composed for film, De Ridder explored circuitous routes between music and the moving image. The concert began with Tōru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia for solo violin and orchestra, which was written in memory of the Soviet and Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky’s film of the same name is about a writer who travels to Italy researching the life of a composer. Takemitsu’s piece is thus a composition about a film about a composer. I mentioned Tarkovsky in an earlier Metropolis review as a example of a film maker with a sophisticated understanding of unsettling cinematic effects. Tarkovsky develops tension through long, wide shots of indifferent and beautiful landscapes before introducing human characters in the foreground. A mysteriously teeming, elemental nature is always lurking behind human fickleness. I would call the atmosphere of films like The Sacrifice or Stalker a sort of claustrophibic agoraphobia. Takemitsu’s elegy for Tarkovsky is a perfect meeting of artistic styles, brilliantly brought to life by Sophie Rowell. In Takemitsu’s music, nature and the elements are also in the ascendant with swooping lines and ethereal bow effects. Rowell took the audience through Takemitsu’s other-worldly musical space with the utmost conviction.

Arnold Schoenberg, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene

Schoenberg composed his Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene in 1929 on the invitation of Heinrichshofen Verlag, a publishing house specialising in silent film scores. Fritz Lang had recently released his chilling image of the future in the silent film Metropolis. The Great Depression and the rise of Nazism in the Weimar Republic provided their own, terrifyingly real images of the future. It is only fitting, then, that instead of composing music for a particular scene, Schoenberg used his twelve-tone technique to express “threat, danger and catastrophe” more generally. The piece is today an interesting historical record of frightening effects in music. In Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene the language of fear is still pinned to the outer reaches of the circle of fifths and in evocative gestures like scurrying, swarming strings. The timbral effects of Penderecki (whose work Polymorphia appears in Saturday’s programme) have since come to dominate the language of horror-film scores. The MSO made the most of Schoenberg’s evocative language, bringing out each vignette of the piece. Perhaps there is still more horror-music to be written with tone rows. I was scared.

Harry Sdraulig, Kaleidoscope (Cybec finalist)

Every MSO concert of the Metropolis festival includes a piece by one of the finalists of the Cybec Foundation’s 21st Century Australian Composers Program. The program gives young composers the valuable opportunity to workshop their compositions with players from the orchestra. Three pieces are then chosen for presentation at the Metropolis festival, providing the even more valuable opportunity of refining their compositions. Harry Sdraulig’s Kaleidoscope was chosen as the first Cybec piece of the festival. Sdraulig was able to develop the piece with guidance from the composers Julian Yu and Brenton Broadstock. In a short interview with De Ridder, Sdraulig explained that he wanted to make the most of the timbre of each instrument in the orchestra. Like the coloured crystals of a kaleidoscope, each instrumental colour shines through the rich orchestral texture. Sharp attacks from the keyboard percussion punctuate winding, Stravinskian woodwind lines and driving string-section rhythms.

Nico Muhly, Cello Concerto

Nico Muhly and Daníel Bjarnason form part of the Bedroom Community label, a close-knit group of composers based in Reykjavík including Australia’s own Ben Frost. Muhly’s use of diatonic harmony and repetition show the influence of his long-term mentor Philip Glass. He has worked closely with a number of pop artists, notably Björk, whose free and idiosyncratic use of voice and electronics can also be heard in some of Muhly’s compositions. Muhly’s orchestral works break free from the strict rhythmic counterpoint of Glass and paint a more complex, immersive sound world. Muhly divides stuttering, fragmented rhythmic material between distinct instrumental timbres. He is, however, intent on keeping his musical language easy on the ears. Without the continuity and counterpoint of earlier minimalist works, Muhly’s voices are snapped to a harmonic and metrical grid. This is especially the case in Muhly’s Cello Concerto, which opens with successive shocks of percussion underneath a searching cello line. This texture is consciously borrowed from the beginning of Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles. Unlike Dutilleux’s more ambiguous and threatening opening chords, each of Muhly’s percussive chords is a brick supporting the flowing crescendi and decrescendi of the melody. Cellist Oliver Coates (for whom the Cello Concerto was written) gave a febrile performance of the piece, with lush string crossings, double stops and tremoli.

Daníel Bjarnason, Blow Bright

While minimalist influences still permeate Bjarnason’s work, his orchestral composition Blow Bright presents a more menacing side of the Bedroom Community sound. Bjarnason’s piece is inspired by the “brightness and energy” of the Pacific Ocean, though this is an energy that evidently runs into dark and foreboding depths. Slapping Bartok pizzicati jump out from the cellos and basses while the percussion drives the piece forward with insistent cross-rhythms. Bjarnason contrasts full, saturated orchestral textures with stripped-back rhythmic figures.

These contrasts made me consider the dramatic role of dynamics in relation to the festival’s sub-theme of suspense and horror. Loud and sudden sounds will always surprise us. At 2013’s Totally Huge New Music Festival I discussed David Toop’s very effective practice of betraying the audience with loud shocks after lulling them into a false sense of security. The juxtaposition of loud and soft orchestral textures, appearing in baroque terraced dynamics, probably hasn’t had the same emotional effect on audiences since the advent of electrical amplification. All the more reason to investigate the subtle art of freaking people out with tones.

In terms of audience numbers, Metropolis appears to be having its most successful year yet. The combination of film as a theme and works by minimalist composers may be responsible for this. It is to De Ridder’s credit that he has explored the festival’s theme through a variety of stimulating avenues.

Nostalghia
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 May 2015

Tōru Takemitsu, Nostalghia; Arnold Schoenberg, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene; Harry Sdraulig, Kaleidoscope; Nico Muhly, Cello Concerto; Daníel Bjarnason, Blow Bright.

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