Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: MSO, Heavenly Cities; Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata, Visions de l’Amen

With classic works by Olivier Messiaen and forward-looking pieces by living Australian composers, the final night of the Metropolis New Music Festival straddled over 75 years of new music. Building on the festival theme of “the city” with two world premières, Metropolis finally addressed issues of migration and the unique environmental and social predicaments of Australian cities.

Barry Conyngham’s Diasporas placed much-needed emphasis on the migrant populations that make cities thrive. And he did so—thank goodness—without trying to imitate a cultural melting pot of musics. Instead the piece was like watching a world map of population movements. A deep, murky bed of sound depicts the various dangers and “push factors” that encourage populations to pack up their things and move to unknown shores. Textures made up of massed scurrying runs or accented notes pass from desk to desk and from section to section. From the birds-eye view of this composed heterophony we zoom down to the human level as instrumental solos full of bitter-sweet hope rise out of the texture. Moving from statistical abstraction to human detail, Diasporas inverts the dominant narrative of migration in this country, the narrative that says “yes there are human lives at stake, but we mustn’t let that influence our policy.”

Michael Bakrnčev updates the “city scape” piece for twenty-first century Melbourne with Sky Jammer. Sky Jammer has at its base the social and environmental problems arising from urbanisation that have been so absent from the festival so far. In his program note Bakrnčev cites a prediction that by 2056 the population of Melbourne will climb towards ten million. But can the surrounding environment support such a population (especially if Melbourne’s water supply is reduced by up to 35% as a result of climate change)? Bakrnčev also feels that social groups and families will be strained by the growing population. With median house prices at or near one million dollars in Melbourne and Sydney, young people cannot afford to buy property near their families or where they grew up. To Bakrnčev, the sky scrapers being erected around Melbourne are not the beacons of progress and economic vigor as we have heard older composers depict them. He writes:

The term ‘skyscraper’ once implied ‘progress’. To my mind—and thinking not only of my own generation, but of our children’s and their children’s—’progress’ has become a dubious word. So emerges this work’s title, Sky Jammer.

I don’t entirely agree with Bakrnčev. With their stunning density and vacancy,  Melbourne skyscrapers are deservedly symbols of Australia’s inflated housing market and disregard for community health. However, building up is one alternative to Melbourne’s addiction to building out across the countryside. But the more densely a city is developed, the more planning is necessary to ensure the city is healthy. And in Melbourne, home of bike lanes on raised tram stops, I hold out little hope for a renaissance in enlightened civic planning.

Sky Jammer is a local and contemporary piece in more than its program. Its sound so clearly draws on the compositional influences around Bakrnčev. In its dense, rapidly-changing textures one can hear the influence of Australian complexist composers. The instrumental timbres have the grit of a piece by Anthony Pateras. With its attention to instrumental colour and formal cohesion one can hear the influence of Bakrnčev’s teacher Elliott Gyger. Though this description might make him sound like the love-child of dour modernists, Bakrnčev brings his own crowd-pleasing style to the piece, in particular during a virtuosic violin solo for Sophie Rowell, who needs to be congratulated for several incredible solo passages throughout the festival.

 Two works by Olivier Messiaen took the festival theme skyward. Couleurs de la Cité Céleste evokes the jewel-encrusted walls of the Heavenly City descending to Earth after the apocalypse. Scored for a large ensemble of brass, woodwind, percussion, and piano, the sheer volume and violence of the music is more apocalyptic than sublime. For a composer so sensitive to tone colour, the piece has a notable absence of resonance. Only bells ring out across the auditorium. The brass—evoking the seven trumpets of the apocalypse—announce the end-times in gigantic clusters while the keyboard and keyboard percussion piece together a mosaic of dry attacks. It is a flat, medieval representation of the Heavenly City rather than a scene of shimmering fanfare. The MSO’s Guest Conductor Robert Spano did not hold back from Messiaen’s vision. In his interpretation each tutti chord is so loud you can hardly bear to listen to it—like looking into the sun. This is perhaps Messiaen’s idea: to paint the cataclysmic aura around a city that shines so brightly you cannot look directly at it.

The most dedicated audience members stayed on for a precious event: Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata’s late-night performance of Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos. Where one can sometimes question individual players’ commitment to new music in an orchestral concert, Go and Kawabata’s performance was positively ecstatic. Locked on to each other’s gaze across the bodies of the two grand pianos, sweat dripping onto the keyboards, each movement was a masterful, sensitive interpretation of Messiaen’s understanding of the polyvalent “Amen”. Returning to this work composed shortly after the Second World War, at the dawn of the experiments in form, rhythm, pitch, and timbre we call “contemporary music,” was the perfect nightcap for a thrilling festival.

Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata
Melbourne Recital Centre
21 May 2016

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