Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta: Midnight Songs

Second-hand musical nationalism emerged as a theme of the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta’s Midnight Songs program at Melba Hall, with composers arranging and imitating musical styles from Bulgaria, China, Russia, as well as the Communist International.

The 153 pieces making up Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos will be familiar to pianists who have jumped through the collection’s graded hoops as students. For this concert the composer and conductor Elliott Gyger gave six of the folk music-influenced tunes an orchestral makeover. Gyger focussed on movements with beats of unequal length, known as “Bulgarian rhythm.” By arranging the pieces for orchestra, it is as though Gyger has “coloured in” the monochrome piano pieces, or enhanced the piano’s limited colour palette. The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonetta, conducted by Gyger, painted the piece in beautiful brush-strokes while bringing the pieces’ rhythmic energy to the stage.

Moving east, James Wade’s Midnight Songs take as their inspiration a collection of Chinese yuèfǔ poems written  by an anonymous poet during the Southern Dynasties in the fifth or sixth centuries. The “simple symphonic poem on the changing of the seasons” shows masterful control of tone colour, with overlapping planes of senza vibrato strings melding into clear flute and woodwind tones, all underpinned by the rasping texture of double-stopped cello. The piece appeared to me an orientalist romp, to the extent that the opening, shimmering chords seemed a striking imitation of the Chinese sheng (mouth organ). The Wade explained to me afterwards that it wasn’t his intention at all to imitate the sound of the instrument, which just goes to show how much these interpretations can be in the ear of the beholder.

Julian Yu imitated the style of Shostakovich in Shostakovich’s 16th Symphony (Unfinished). The piece is brimming with clever imitations of Shostakovich’s symphonies, jokes that the ensemble clearly enjoyed performing.

Perhaps the odd one out on this program was Liam Flenady’s Kampflieder. It doesn’t imitate any particular national style, but instead takes as its basic material revolutionary songs from a book given to Conlon Nancarrow when he joined the Spanish Civil War in 1936–7. Nancarrow fought with the International Brigades, an amalgam of liberal-democratic, socialist, and communist anti-fascist soldiers recruited by communist parties around the world. The Kampflieder were also brought together by the Comintern or Third International, even if some of the songs are more obviously communist than others. As was typical of this stage of communism, the book is an attempt to piece together a catholic, international communist culture from diverse nations. Communism, the Kampflieder seem to say, isn’t just something from Russia; it belongs to all.

A selection of these revolutionary songs are given a similarly “generic” treatment in Flenady’s composition. They are not treated with this or that national style, but instead treated with post-serial metrical, harmonic, and structural techniques that were also considered—once upon a time—to hold a certain pan-cultural legitimacy. I’m sympathetic to this idea that the inventions of modernist artists and musicians should be  accessible to all (whether people choose to learn about them is another matter), but like communist axioms their adoption in different contexts can have wildly diverging effects.

Modernist works should also be subject to local evaluation and appreciation. So, did Flenady’s process-based composition work in Melba Hall performed by the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta and surrounded by various national caricatures? Yes, for several reasons. The piece was an excellent contrast to the lyrical nationalism of the surrounding works. Like a detailed triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, the orchestra is divided into three sections playing in different time signatures, creating a complex rhythmic counterpoint. Against its more conservative foils, the piece also displays adventurous instrumental writing, with seething masses of high violins, wallowing woodwinds, and gritty bass strings. This grandiosity is punctuated by muted percussion, lending the texture a pathetic intimacy. You can’t make out the individual songs, but certain harmonic colours pass like clouds between the orchestral sections. I began wondering where the fight was in all of this textural refinement when a shred of melody turns into a cluster of notes run wild. Before I knew it the orchestra had exploded into a wonderful, blaring mess with a solo piccolo riding atop it with gentle upward glissandi. Not wanting to be too cliché in his socialist anthem, Flenady makes the piece amble to the end.

Modeled on the London Sinfonietta, the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta are filling an important niche in local musical life. In Midnight Songs they have brought together established and emerging composers for an accessible and challenging program.

The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta
Conducted by Elliott Gyger
Melba Hall
18 March 2016
Béla Bartòk, arr. Elliott Gyger, 6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm; James Wade, Midnight Songs; Liam Flenady, Kampflieder; Julian Yu, Shostakovich’s 16th Symphony (Unfinished).

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