Alexina Hawkins: Spectrum

Alexina Hawkins’s viola is a vessel for reaching out and engaging with her network of musicians and creators. Eschewing the South Melbourne Town Hall for the cavernous ceiling and broad windows of the BRIGHTSPACE gallery in St Kilda, the expansive, final concert of Hawkins’ ANAM fellowship included an improvisation on water by percussionist Thea Rossen and an exciting new work for massed violas by Samuel Smith.

Continuum II by Nicoleta Chatzopoulou begins with axiomatic statements of different types of articulation: Legato bowing, tapping the body of the instrument, tremoli. As the piece develops we are treated to glorious chorale textures decorated with harmonics, glissandi, and double-stops that resonated beautifully in the room. This piece was a lesson in the timbral possibilities of the instrument, setting the stage for the massed violas to come.

But not before the audience was gently ambushed by the percussionist Thea Rossen. Rossen began her liquid improvisation behind one of the gallery’s partitions. The singing tone of a hydrophone called from afar before growing nearer as Rossen moved through the audience. Like a ritual procession, she eventually reached a bowl of water brilliantly lit from below. Here the spell was broken as Rossen conjured a series of slapping noises from the water. One sound caught the ear: the sharp attacks produced by flicking the water with the thumb and forefingers.

Emerging from studies with Larry Sitsky and Elliott Gyger, Samuel Smith is one of Australia’s most sought-after young composers. Over the past months he has been busy composing for Ensemble Offspring, Soundstream Collective, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. His piece for seven violas premiered in Hawkins’ concert joins pieces for massed violas by Peter de Jager and Brett Dean performed throughout Hawkins’ fellowship. As I claimed earlier, massed violas are incredible vehicles for contemporary music. In elsewhere; everywhere Smith wastes no time in pushing the instrument to its limits. One viola breaks into a finely-detailed solo of rapid string crossings; light whispering bowing, crunchy double-stops, sotto-voce trills, and harmonics. The solo is a piece on its own, a polyphony of timbres on one instrument with swishing up-bows like a samurai sword. Two more violists seamlessly join in, producing a fluid texture of sirens crashing into grinding, heavy bows on the lower strings.  The piece is so linked to breath and motion that I feel it could be arranged for a vocal ensemble.

Once the ensemble grows to more than three voices, the piece becomes less convincing. Four violists face each other on either side of the trio. Their antiphonal imitation is obvious and repetitious, though moments where the entire ensemble contrast with solo voices are positively sublime. At one point Smith pits a Xenakian chorus of glissandi against one tough little solo voice. Evan Lawson’s broad conducting was perfect for the massive, pitching rollercoaster of sound. Smith quits while he is ahead. The ensemble puts their mutes on to finish and I was left thinking I could have heard more, which is always a good thing.

Hawkins ended with the solo piece Light is Calling by Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon. Light is Calling is an exhausted appeal to beauty after the events of September 11. The solo violin (here viola) plays sustained, plaintive tones against an electroacoustic track of reversed guitar sounds. Hawkins articulated her line with more vibrato and dynamic phrasing than Véronique Serret during the recent Metropolis New Music Festival. Serret’s interpretation produced an atmosphere of angelic serenity, but Hawkins may have opted for a more dynamic interpretation because she was not playing against Bill Morrison’s accompanying film. Spectrum, like all of Hawkins’ ANAM fellowship concerts, showcases her collaborative nous, artistic vision, and instrumental virtuosity.

Alexina Hawkins
12 September 2015

Nicoleta Chatzopoulou, Continuum II; Thea Rossen, Improvisation; Samuel Smith, elsewhere; everywhere; Michael Gordon, Light is Calling.

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