2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (1)

James Wannan performs Decadent Purity, Jason Tavener Photography

By Zoe Barker

The world premiere of two new Australian double concerti was a bold way to open the BIFEM festival. The inherent juxtapositions allowed by the medium, including the relationship between the two soloists, and their interaction with the chamber orchestra, were explored in different ways by composers Jack Symonds and David Chisholm. With both composers writing for unique instrumental combinations, Symonds’ Decadent Purity pairing viola d’amore with percussion, and Chisholm’s work for harp and guitar, there were many opportunities for an absorbing musical dialogue.

 Symonds’ manipulation of range and timbre was one of his work’s most striking aspects. The chamber orchestra was scored for instruments which reflected the extremes of their families—bass flute paired with piccolo, clarinet with contrabass clarinet, and a string section comprising two violins, two celli and a double bass. Opening the work, the viola d’amore soloist James Wannan was joined by the two orchestral violins playing pure dissonant tones at the top of their registers. The addition of bowed vibraphone created an ethereal sound world, and the entrance of the double bass at the depths of its range created a sense of open space ready to be filled by the soloists. This feeling of envelopment continued throughout, with the viola d’amore often given the space to fill in the registral gaps. Not only was this interesting scoring, but a clever move from Symonds. By eliminating instruments of a similar range, the mellow tone of the viola d’amore had no problem cutting through the small orchestra.

The strengths of the performance owed much to the inspired interpretation of the two soloists. Wannan approached sections of the work with the energy of a violinist playing a Romantic concerto, with virtuosic chordal passages and series of string crossings executed with flair. Crucially, he also knew when to pull back and play with a sense of fragility, blending with the small chamber orchestra. Kaylie Melville mesmerised with her dancing movements among the large percussion set-up, and demonstrated an extraordinary ability to impart a sense of musicality to even the smallest gestures. With so much material for Wannan to delve into, the percussion line unfortunately seemed underdeveloped in comparison. Sporadic snatches of marimba and vibraphone played a supporting role to Wannan’s line, as did the work of Melville’s untuned percussion, but the instruments were never an equal partner in the concerto.

Symonds explored many musical ideas within the work, ranging from the delicate opening to the parodic sections underscored by steady percussion beats, and those of a more modernist idiom with alternate agitated stabs from the soloists and orchestra. While each section had merit and interest, the work attempted to draw together too many disparate elements—perhaps inevitable given the task of featuring a baroque instrument alongside the very twentieth century concept of a percussion solo. Those sections which slowly unfurled, exploring the timbral qualities of the unusual instrumentation could have been developed further. The section towards the end using slow scales climbing through the ensemble was one of the most effective in this way, and it was moments such as these where the work’s title, Decadent Purity, was most strongly reflected. These glimpses of purity could be identified at points throughout, coming through especially in the upper strings, providing moments to savour.

For David Chisholm’s new double concerto, the Argonaut ensemble swelled to a 29 piece chamber orchestra, suggesting that this piece might be more decadent than the first. Opening the work with flamboyant gestures from the two soloists, Chisholm launched into a spirited postmodern pastiche, with different musical ideas emerging at once from all sections of the orchestra. The scoring for the solo instruments often enhanced their timbral similarities, heightening the playfulness of the work by adding an element of aural ambiguity. A concern in the opening, and other fairly densely scored sections in the work, was the ability of the guitar to be heard over Chisholm’s sometimes heavy-handed orchestration. While the harp benefitted from its greater natural resonance, the guitar was often lost.

Harpist Jessica Fotinos fully drew out the different facets of the work, excelling in sections of contemporary harp writing featuring extended techniques as well as making the most of more traditional passages with her lyrical playing. The harp cadenza was a point of serenity in an otherwise busy work, with her expressive performance commanding attention. Guitarist Mauricio Carrasco also managed to capture the many different idioms and styles demanded of him, ranging from agitated strummed passages to quasi flamenco chords, traditional classical guitar technique and a humorous passage of slide guitar.

While the cadenzas proved to be great vehicles for demonstrating the talents of the two soloists, their sheer length impaired the flow of the work, the content doing little to distill or clarify the many layers of material presented in the orchestral sections. These often proved overwhelming, with little distinction between the snippets of stylistic allusion layered in the dense score.

While a fuller string section would have benefitted this work, the existing players demonstrated their sound abilities through divisi passages requiring all violinists to act as soloists. A strong woodwind section was headed by oboists Benjamin Opie and Jasper Ly, who impressed in their unusual double cor anglais solo following the harp cadenza, and their unexpected heroic oboe line to finish the work. Interjections from trombonist Charles MacIness added both humour and darkness to the piece, and were supported by a very strong bass woodwind section. The Argonaut Ensemble in its new large format confirmed its position as an exciting voice in Australian contemporary music making.

By Zoe Barker
As part of the 2016 BIFEM Music Writers’ Workshop

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016

Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity (James Wannan Viola d’amore; Kaylie Melville, percussion; Jack Symonds, Conductor)

David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto (Jessica Fotinos Harp; Mauricio Carrasco Guitar; Maxime Pascal Conductor)

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