Tag Archives: BIFEM Writers’ Workshop

2016BIFEM: ELISION/ANAM, Speicher (1)

©Jason Tavener Photography SPEICHER_MG_1304
ELISION and ANAM students perform Enno Poppe’s Speicher, Jason Tavener Photography

Review by Bec Scully

Enno Poppe’s Speicher is a play on memory, a greatly expanding field of knowledge for our generation. We know our memories are malleable, largely illusory, constantly mutating, decaying or enriching. In German, the term ‘speicher’, meaning ‘storage’, and refers both to psychological memory storage, and also more specifically as a store of pitch class sets used in a compositional process.

At the opening of the piece there is no memory, only attention. Poppe’s atom of musical thought is the salty sul pont viola paired with bleak sonar-radio emissions from the accordion. These bare elements return recognisable, yet in eloquent settings and manipulated through unexpected readings. Vibrato is Poppe’s justification for challenging our traditional concept of a note as belonging to a fixed pitch. With intervals-wide, pitch-traversing vibrato we learn to reconsider our idea of a musical atom. We’re reminded of the pitch continuum at play in vibrato and reassess our assumption in our perception of the discrete tone.

By contrast, after this hypervibrato and ‘hyperchromatic’ divisions of less than a semitone, late-Romantic string vibrato is introduced only for a moment and suddenly we can hear this normally ubiquitous left-hand string technique as a chaotic, over-stimulating, maelstrom of thousands of incomprehensible musical events. And in these small moments we might experience an appreciation of sounds units on a small order of magnitude and perhaps experience the reverse operation of Schenkerian analysis which looks for the skeleton of a work, not for its biochemistry.

 Conducted by Carl Rosman and performed by a the champion forces of Elision ensemble joined by the fresh-blood of Australian National Academy of Music, the combined ensemble evoked cohesive textural moments, and colouristic effects convincingly. The students clearly delighted in their full-citizenship in any register of their instruments.

 Shout out to a grand-effort Parker-esque solo on alto sax by clarinettist, Luke Carbon. Kyla Matsuura-Miller tag-teamed the second violin part at the 4th movement and knocked it out of the park with rhythmic finesse and delicious tonal ferocity. Props to Eli Vincent in valiantly helming the nucleus of the work as first viola. Applause to the professionals: concertmaster Graeme Jennings who was a consistent and efficient leader, cellist Séverine Ballon, whose early attack on the cello was the first and true expression of musical violence in the work; her solo in section I explores the highest pitches of the deepest strings, creating an innocent, swallowed sob in melody that was reminiscent of the frailty of a child’s voice. Tristram Williams, a strong advocate of this work, played with precision and expression. There were seriously stunningly executed harp treats in the texture from Marshall Mcguire. Best and Fairest goes to James Crabb on accordion. The evolution from harmonics to accordion hums was sublime, and Crabb, master of camouflage, as a foreign species of instrument among the full palette of orchestral instruments. It returns to the fore of the texture evoking its unique voice; an imperceptible transformation before our ears, as if Escher himself could draw sound. Like Escher, Poppe is a numerologist and does not believe the 12-tone technique would have been so successful were it not for the cultural significance of the number 12. This piece appears to be based around the number six on multiple levels. Six movements, each containing six parts, the hyper chromatic use of 6th tones.

Stylistically, most of this work is in Poppe’s own compositional language of clear texture, and microtonal organic development. However, in a potential nod to Adams’ The Chairman Dances, Poppe enters the stylistic world of the foxtrot. Apart from minor technical details, challenge some students struggled to find their groove. Some bebop stomps were finely executed on the drum kit and one wished for similar conviction in the strings. From the ironic use of grotesquely pretty Hollywood strings to tone-dense Mondrian-esque geometric forces in the winds and Debussy’s harmonic-gravity defying language, textural transitions were the most spectacular feature of the ensemble’s interpretation.

A humble woodblock knock, emerging meekly from an apocalyptic orchestral force, elicited a chuckle from the audience, and true, a musical ugly-duckling it was. Our duckling returns as a pluck in the harp and we delight in its glorious transformation into a swan-tone adorned in overtones. Outside of this piece I would have serious doubts as to whether a single harp note held sufficient aesthetic power.

 All these micro-details are essentially developmental links in an 80-minute epic, expansive enough to puff its chest at Beethoven’s 9th. At the close of Speicher, it’s possible to hear the initial opening notes of Beethoven 9’s recitative, a melody symbolic of refusal for new material. One can’t help but feel Poppe reached the precipice of a musical mind verging on new material, only to reiterate and reaffirm the work’s fidelity to singular ideas and their possibilities and thus the piece exits before new material can be spoken, suspended on the trumpeter’s tongue.

Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Capital Theatre
2 September 2016

Enno Poppe, Speicher (Carl Rosman, conductor)

2016BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Seeing Double (2)

(C)Jason Tavener Photography HARP G UITAR DOUBLE CONCERTO_MG_1126
Argonaut Ensemble, Maxime Pascal conductor, Harp Guitar Double Concerto by David Chisholm, Jason Tavener photography

Review by Alex Taylor

Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre, a converted jail, may soon be home to BIFEM’s resident Argonaut ensemble on a more permanent basis. At Friday night’s opening concert Seeing Double, Bendigo festival founder and featured composer David Chisholm waxed lyrical on the “criminal” lack of this kind of permanent new music infrastructure. “All criminals need to be brought to justice, and this is the jail where that can happen.” BIFEM’s opening double bill of double concerti showed us both the possibilities and temptations of that infrastructure, embodied here by large, skilful instrumental forces and consummate soloists and conductors; a veritable toybox for two precocious postmodernists.

Jack Symonds’s Decadent Purity is a work that attempts to blend quite disparate elements. At the outset a cloud of high harmonics hovers over a stop-start grumble of double bass and contrabass clarinet, opening up a chasm of registral space and spectral colour. The two solo instruments, too, carve opposing roles; the viola d’amore draws out its long line against percussive exclamation marks: elaborated argument against decisive punctuation. The first of seven movements also sets out another more uncomfortable dichotomy: two harmonic worlds in combat. A sturdy neo-Baroque tonality, reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, is pitted against the subtle slippage and inflection of microtones and textural nuance. It’s a promising collision.

Both soloists hold the drama of the work in their phrasing and movements. James Wannan sways on tiptoe, his viola d’amore an ornate, many-stringed creature of clear resonance and line, making the most of the acoustic at the front of the Ulumbarra Theatre stage. Wannan’s approach embodies the decadent purity of the title, imbuing Baroque details with a rich, almost Romantic sensibility. Percussionist Kaylie Melville moves with a pixie swagger, each entry dashed off with a cutting, almost sardonic precision. But her role for the most part remains one of commentary and fleeting gesture, unable to enter the harmonic and melodic realms that form the bulkhead of the work.

As captivating as the soloists were to watch and listen to, the dramaturgy and flow of the work itself at times seemed forced, imposed from above rather than extrapolated from the rich materials already at play. You couldn’t help but be seduced by sighing herds of ascending or descending microtones, but these remained as fixed objects rather than catalysts for generating gesture. The restraint and sensitivity of more spacious sections (for example the penultimate movement with its slow-moving scales) was several times undercut by overtly dramatic tropes. High-energy toccatas recurred throughout the work, most forcefully in the final movement where the marimba propelled us, no, forced us, towards cadential release.

The attractiveness of Symonds’s work is undeniable, but the promise of that initial collision of soloists, ensemble and the stylistic strains of both Baroque and modernist Avant-Garde is ultimately left unfulfilled.

David Chisholm’s Harp Guitar Double Concerto seemed a more natural and less masochistic pairing than viola d’amore and percussion: here were two forces of equal dynamism and resonance. A striking, hard-edged opening hints at the diverse gestural possibilities of those two soloists. Rapid pinball glissandi in the brittle high reaches of the harp answer a deep upward sweep in the guitar.

Like a flickbook, the opening cuts rapidly from gesture to gesture, often blurring in the orchestral maelstrom of an expanded Argonaut Ensemble. You get the sense that this is a kind of pastiche, but not of direct quotation, or even of particularly strong stylistic allusion. Occasionally more distinctive slivers poke through: swaggering muted brass recall Miles Davis, and later a frantic viola solo has echoes of Elliott Carter, a haywire cog spinning in the wrong machine. These are relatively rare moments, and you sense there might be a wealth of such detail hidden amidst some ambitiously thick, even clumpy textures. These aren’t helped by an acoustic that threw the soloists into relief at the front of the stage, while damping the intricacies beyond the proscenium arch.

For much of the work, the action continues in postmodern pile-up fashion, impulsive, rather than linear, time hammered out ecstatically. For a time, this was immersive, like those pools of plastic balls you used to get at some adventurous fast food chain playgrounds, a liquid made of solid objects. But as the piece progressed there was a more and more present feeling that these gestures, constrained as they were in a four-square metric scheme, rarely got beyond fragments. You have to say too that the obvious talents of conductor Maxime Pascal were utilised sparingly with so much martial time-keeping. However within the relatively square metric scheme, Pascal was able to draw out a range of bold shapes and colours from the ensemble.

It wasn’t until the fluid, effortless harp cadenza, a dazzling display of delicacy both from Chisholm and from harp soloist Jessica Fotinos, that we glimpsed an interior alternative to the glitzy, pluralistic mass offered by the front half of the work. Even though, like the rest of the piece, it might have benefitted from more space and breath, the finely crafted but rather lengthy cadenza allowed us to pivot towards lyricism and fragility. Out of the cadenza came a positively decadent cor anglais duo from Jasper Ly and Benjamin Opie, foreshadowing their oboe heroics at the exquisite, abrupt ending. In turn the cor anglais led us tag-team into a nostalgic, washed-out kind of texture, strings fluttering between solid pitches and combinations of ethereal partials.

The guitar soloist, Mauricio Carrasco, also had a chance to show off his solo chops, delivering both sheer brutality and lyrical nuance in a much shorter but no less impactful cadenza. In fact, it contained to my mind the evening’s most sensitive, fantastical moment. Out of the resonance of guitar harmonics came a delicate veil of sound, initially difficult to place but revealed as a falsetto vocal hum from Fotinos across the stage. The harmonics and falsetto continued, a true interior world, almost haunting in a fragile continuity against the flamboyance of what had come before. After a brief and brutal swansong in the guitar, we returned to that interior, but more confidently, as if a fresh discovery has been made. Over a breathy mass of sustained string harmonics, the oboes asserted this new, insistent lyricism: at the very end, a way forward.

Seeing Double
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Ulumbarra Theatre
2 September 2016
Jack Symonds, Decadent Purity; David Chisholm, Harp Guitar Double Concerto

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)


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)