Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, There Will Be Blood

Guest review by David R. M. Irving

The Metropolis New Music Festival, showcasing works associated with film and the moving image, reached its stunning conclusion on Saturday with a program of recent compositions and more ‘classic’ works. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was in fine form, conductor André de Ridder decisive in direction and eloquent in speech, and the Melbourne Recital Centre an ideal locus for a performance that was both extravagant in scope and intimate in experience. For me, the juxtaposition of ‘old-new’ music with ‘new-new’ music spoke volumes of a continuing desire for postmodern assemblages in concert programming – if such an observation isn’t already a mode of criticism long passé. Yet what was particularly striking was that ‘classic’ works such as Penderecki’s Polymorphia (1961) and Varèse’s Déserts (1954) sounded far more experimental and groundbreaking than the considerably more conservative and self-reflexive works by Jonny Greenwood and John Corigliano. This represented a timely reminder of the non-linear and multicentric flowering of compositional style over the past half-century, but perhaps it also says something about canonisation and the ritualised recycling of repertoire in most art music programming – at least in terms of listeners’ preconditioned ideas of orchestral music and style. (An anonymised program and testing of audience reactions on musical vintage could actually be quite illuminating, not to mention fun.)

The practice of performing suites of film music in orchestral concerts echoes the programming of seventeenth-century theatre music by Purcell and co., but the aural experience of this repertoire seems altogether more divorced from its context if given without the accompanying moving images. It was in this vein that we began the program with Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood suite: a veritable sonic landscape with vivid aural evocations of Californian oil fields. (I haven’t actually seen the film, by way of full disclosure, but learnt the context from the concise and informative program notes.) A special feature was the use of the ondes martenot, an electronic instrument championed by Messiaen, which emitted a luminous melody hovering above the strings. Greenwood was pretty sparing with it, and the ondes were conspicuous for their absence for the rest of the piece, but the audience was clearly thrilled with the experience. The suite was very much a tableau of diverse sounds, and a thoughtful and artful voyage of sonic discovery, making use of many different string textures and techniques. The MSO, reduced in forces for this programme, was a model of excellent ensemble and rhythmic precision, and played as if they were performing chamber music, with a blend of movement and sound rarely seen in an ensemble of this size.

Corigliano’s The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra is a companion piece to the score of the eponymous film. By Chaconne the composer implies a repeated chord progression, but I felt the piece would better reflect the name of “rhapsody” or “romance”. Violinist Sophie Rowell was technically brilliant and immensively expressive in her rendition of the difficult solo part. It featured all the usual late-Romantic characteristics: multiple-stops, big arpeggios and virtuosic scalic passages, sweeping long melodies, and – as the composer points out – the incorporation of difficult études into the solo line. There were certainly some very moving moments. Yet some of the longer orchestral interludes and especially the big orchestral “hits” (large chords) right at the end represented something of a cliché, reinforcing a melodramatic aesthetic that one rarely hears outside the cinema. Still, this piece certainly reflected the subject of the film that inspired it. An impressive feat to perform, and the audience gave it a rousing vote of thanks.

Speaking of associations between film and music, who can forget the terror inspired by Jack Nicholson in parts of The Shining, underpinned by the unsettling whispering, murmuring, and whistling of 48 string players producing Penderecki’s organised cacophony that is Polymorphia, and bringing us to the very edge of our seats? This piece arguably deserves recognition in its own right as a masterpiece of new music in the 1960s. It must have caused a sensation at its original performance in 1961, and it certainly did here. All I could think about, though, was the way in which those extended string techniques – playing below the bridge, bowing the tailpiece, tapping the instrument with flesh and with wood, and so on – have been associated with so many different emotions; here the aesthetic is linked indelibly to terror, thanks to Stanley Kubrick, and yet we hear many of the same kinds of sounds representing the raucous dawn chorus in Sculthorpe’s Kakadu. (Okay, that’s a pretty random binary opposition, and one I won’t explore further, but maybe we can chew some more on the meanings that high frequencies have for human emotions.) The best part of witnessing a concert performance of Polymorphia by 48 string instruments is to recognise gradually the aural and visual order in the seeming chaos, and to watch the director bathe in waves of sound while pointing the cues in rapid-fire succession. The surprise C major chord at the very end jolted us suddenly into (or out of?) an altered reality.

Varèse’s Déserts was for me the calling card of the programme. This was clearly intended as the show-stopping finale, while other works were intended for aural contemplation without the projections of video stimulus. Performed with Bill Viola’s video of 1994, it’s difficult to say whether the music of Déserts was accompanying the moving image, or vice versa, as the synchrony of sound and vision was impressive indeed. The conductor presumably had a click track: the coordination was precise, right down to the live instrumental accompaniment of sudden lightning strikes on the screen. The musicians were split into several small groupings on stage, making for a stereophonic atmosphere that interacted well with the tape-recorded passages broadcast at specific points in the piece. The mesmeric quality of the film lulled us into a transcendent space of seeing, hearing, and being. Perhaps a nice example of a complete artwork, albeit without voice.

The MSO players provided a wonderful visual display in a technically assured and highly expressive performance, within the attractive wood-lined ambiance of the MRC’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. A fitting finale to the 2015 Metropolis New Music Festival.

– David R. M. Irving

There Will Be Blood
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
16 May 2015

Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood; John Corigliano, The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra; Krzystzof Penderecki, Polymorphia; Edgard Varèse, Déserts.

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