Hold the jokes, you do want to hear nine violas

The ensemble after performing Peter de Jager's Metaphors. Photo by Hank Clifton.
The ensemble after performing Peter de Jager’s Metaphors. Photo by Hank Clifton.

The effervescent violist Xina Hawkins has returned from her stellar international career to present three concerts of music for solo and massed violas at the South Melbourne Town Hall. Peter de Jager, Brett Dean, and Samuel Smith have been engaged to compose for viola ensembles, and if De Jager’s offering is anything to go by, we are in for some valuable new repertoire for an often ignored instrument. But before we heard De Jager’s Metaphors, Hawkins had a few surprises in store.

First up, an imaginative piece for viola and piano by Paul Kerekes. The innocuous-sounding Four Pieces contains four far-from-innocuous movements. The first is inspired by the cartoons of Michael Leunig and features whimsical descending chromatic scales and the sort of minimalist rhythmic pitter-patter associated with innocence and blue skies in film scores. The final cadence leaves us with the pathos that so defines Leunig’s social commentaries. Kerekes gives us more pitter-patter in a movement inspired by hyper-organised supermarkets before moving attacca into “Aviophobia,” a movement depicting the fear of flying. Hawkins dug deep for this one, crafting soaring glissandi over piano tremoli. The final movement is inspired by “Michael Jackson and Ligeti,” a combination that works quite well. Kerekes combines Ligeti’s rolled clusters with syncopated, vamping bass lines. Citing “unfinished business,” Hawkins and Jacob Abela launched into a rendition of “Billie Jean.” The audience clicked out the song’s cross-rhythm and their enjoyment of Hawkins’ performance was evinced by their degree of rhythmic inaccuracy in the chorus.

Hawkins was then joined by double bassist Kinga Janiszewski, percussionist Hamish Upton, and oud player Yuval Ashkar for an extended Taqsim, or improvisation based on Arabic modes. The improvisation included the traditional song “Lamma bada yatathanna,” as well as an original song Marakesh Nights by Ashkar, which were framed by beatific improvisations.

Metaphors

Peter de Jager is the piano virtuoso of his generation. As a composer, too, he exhibits an almost incontinent imagination and creative felicity. I have found that his cellular, fragmented forms do not always amount to more than the sum of their parts. He is a pianist’s composer and the piano part can dominate within his ensemble pieces. The answer, we discovered on Tuesday night, is to take him away from the piano. Metaphors for nine violas presents so many unprecedented textures and effects, as well as familiar sounds presented in a new light. The piece is a beautiful synthesis of inspiration and craft.

The piece’s nine parts may suggest a disjointed series of studies.

Part I:
Ladder
Spheres
Stars
Planes
Particles
Smoke
Song

Part II:
Forest
Fugue, Chorale and Toccata

However, De Jager introduces a sense of continuity by increasing the number of violas in each movement from the microtonal solo “Ladder” to the nonet “Fugue, Chorale and Toccata.” Each movement is a work of astonishing refinement and control. “Stars” is a case in point. Reading the generic description “extremely high harmonics as twinkling points of light” I expected the piece to come and go without too much interest, but no. The three violists appear like a constellation on the far side of the stage from the previous duo. Their harmonics are very close and rhythmically overlapping, as though one were listening to distant interstellar patterns of morse code. The richness of the viola’s harmonics give a personal warmth to these starry sentinels and their peculiar harmony.

The following movement, “Planes,” is another aural delight. The viola quartet play loud, diverging glissandi reminiscent of Xenakis’ Metastaseis. These planes are “connected” by solo scalar runs. At first the planes are low and dense, but soon they rise higher in pitch-space. Then there are more simultaneous planes with multiple scalar stairways leading from them. The effect is extremely visual, and it’s a pleasure to follow De Jager’s Monument Valley-esque world of planes and bridges in the mind’s eye.

The final movement of Part I is a solo melody inspired by traditional Arabic music. The melody shows an intense melodic sensitivity on De Jager’s part, but the background texture is just as striking. I am not sure exactly how it is produced, but the six violas produce a rich, whispering, murmuring background that I had never heard before.

Part II features movements with a more diverse use of texture. “Forest” begins with eight violas playing trills with all fingers on open strings while changing their tone by moving their bows between the fingerboard and the bridge. Once again, De Jager takes a conventional enough technique and uses it to produce a sublime, sussurating effect like wind in the trees. After a while “gnarled branches” jut out of the foliage. The effect was all the more surprising after the long period of static rustling.

The final movement was an experiment in nine voices and three traditional textures. The fugual section lost clarity after five or so entries, not so the super-juicy nine-voice chorale of stacked seconds, which the ensemble balanced finely. The final, hocketing toccata was a great example of ensemble dynamics, with the final chord echoing out beautifully into the South Melbourne Town Hall. I can’t wait to hear what violist and composer Brett Dean (recipient of last night’s Art Music Award for orchestral work of the year) and rising star Samuel Smith have in store.

Xina Hawkins
ANAM Fellowship Recital #1
South Melbourne
Town Hall
Tuesday 11 August

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