In 2009 the clarinettist Richard Haynes played a piece by Richard Barrett naked but for a feathered head dress, Chris Dench on a surgical table wrapped in glad wrap and wearing a cock ring, David Young while pissing into an amplified 44-gallon drum, and David Lang while climbing a ladder in a hard hat and not much else. The concert, Listen My Secret Fetish, was an Aphids production directed by David Young and Margaret Cameron and it set the bar for explorations of new music and sexuality. Not everyone has to wee into a bucket, but sex and music is a thematic pair with as much room for exploration as, well, sex and music.
Forest Collective’s Sensuality in the City program at the Metropolis New Music Festival began promisingly. The audience was met at the door by a cardboard torso complete with a glory hole for happy-snaps (nobody took full advantage of this). Once in the salon, the audience sat through a tense minute of droning cello and gently pulsating piano clusters while the marvelously hairy bass-baritone Christian Gillett glowered darkly above us. After a while he stated emphatically “I wanna fuck Chris Hemsworth.” The original version of F**k forever by Philip Venables gives George Miles as the object of affection, but I think we can allow this local variation in contemporary performance practice.
From this point on artistic director Evan Lawson conducted a historical survey of urban sexuality divided into brackets addressing desire, sex, and conflict. The “desire” bracket included three sumptuous arrangements of pieces by Robert Schumann, Claude Debussy, and Franz Schubert. Soprano Rosemary Ball brought out the budding desire in “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” at least so far as singing about birds allows. The ensemble crowded around Rebecca Scully’s double bass, voyeuristically illuminating her visceral performance of Syrinx with torches.
The “sex” bracket approached sex most obliquely indeed. George Aperghis’ Recitation No. 9 received an unprecedentedly powerful performance by Ball. The soprano recites the sentence “Parfois je résiste à mon envie parfois je lui cède pourquoi donc ce désir,” which might be translated as something like “Sometimes I resist my inclination sometimes I give in to it why then this desire?” The phrase is revealed word by word from the end to the beginning, taking on different meanings with each iteration. In terms of suggestion—and Ball’s rendition was wonderfully suggestive—this piece is clearly still in the realm of desire. So too is Lawson’s Himeros, a piece dedicated to the pain in desire. Contorted Wagnerian strings send heart-strings thrumming before a sparse and delicate middle section lulls the audience to sleep. The audience is painfully awoken with a bang from the percussion as the brass begin to cry. If the association of Himeros with sex is obscure, then Marc Yeats’ Lines and Distances is absolutely cryptic. The measured, pointillist tapestry unfolds before the listener like a medieval love story, with clarinettist Vilan Mai carefully managing each turn of the tale. But once again we are in a world of courtship and managed proximities.
For the third bracket dedicated to “confusion, conflict and confusion” the audience heard a truly heartbreaking rendition of Schubert’s “Gefrorne Tränen” performed by Gillett, then music from an opera by Venables where members of a family and their maid “beat a mysterious bandaged figure lurking in the corner while discussing what they’ll eat for dinner.” The program felt like a film that cuts straight from a prolonged scene of flirtatious winking to a scene of domestic violence, skipping over physical sensuality entirely. The program’s lacklustre programming was not aided by some very unsexy intonation. Now I don’t know how you’d actually go about making a good “sexy program.” It seems a bit like someone asking you to “be funny,” you can’t just do it on the spot. I struggle to be half-way presentable most days. But someone out there has got to be able to get this right.
Sensuality in the City
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
18 May 2016
Philip Venables, F**k Forever; Robert Schumann, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai; Claude Debussy (arr. Rebecca Scully), Syrinx; Franz Schubert (arr. Alexander Morris), Ganymede; Georges Aperghis, Recitation No. 9; Evan Lawson, Himeros; Marc Yeats, Lines and Distances; Franz Schubert (arr. Evan Lawson), Gefrorne Tränen; Philip Venables, Fight Music.
Forest Collective teamed up with their ensemble in residence Rubiks to provide a folk-inflected final concert of 2015.
Michael Bakrnčev’s The Virtuous Woman with the Watermelon is a lighthearted piece for narrator and small ensemble based on a Macedonian folk tale. Commissioned expressly for this concert, the piece was an appropriate companion to Berio’s Folk Songs. The narrator (Stefanie Dingnis) tells the story of the ideal married couple receiving visitors, but all is not as it seems. The fussy husband constantly sends his wife back to the market to buy a better watermelon for their guests and the wife simply returns to the kitchen and polishes the watermelon until the husband declares that she has indeed found the very best watermelon in town. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Don’t be a demanding partner? Do make pragmatic shortcuts? “The husband and wife are a team” explained Bakrnčev after the concert, the story hinging on our guessing at the husband’s knowledge of the wife’s actions and the slow transformation of the meaning of the word “virtuous” in the story’s title. Bakrnčev accompanies the story with a mock-military march. A flute trembles stertorously over a snare drum. At one point the narrator vocalises beautifully over a cheery piano tune. Next to the Folk Songs Bakrnčev’s musical accompaniment sounded very light indeed.
There is always time for another performance of Berio’s Folk Songs. In arranging eleven folk songs from the United States and Europe (including two original compositions), Berio sought “a unity between folk music and our music.” I assume that by “our music” he means contemporary art music rather than the classical tradition more broadly. Berio surrounds the folk tunes with an atmosphere of extended techniques evoking natural environments. Thorny instrumental interjections paint a sound-world far removed from the singing tones of a modern orchestra. Does the listener really hear the spirit of ancient music brought alive to modern ears, or a fantasy of a lost world? Whether real or imagined, in 1964 Berio constructed a bridge between pre-modern tones and the overblown, underbowed techniques of contemporary music. This bridge has since grown to a widely acknowledged superhighway between early and contemporary music. The Folk Songs may have been a striking statement in 1964, but this conduit has now passed over into ideology and is ripe for interrogation.
Today’s culturally-aware listeners are sensitive to issues of cultural appropriation. Performers need to carefully balance their preconceptions of ancient and modern music. Too “folksy” a performance and the performance will slide into parody, too straight a performance and the songs will lose much of their appeal. Stefanie Dingnis chose a relatively restrained performance style, letting the beauty of the tunes speak for themselves. Dingnis came alive in the Sicilian song “A la femminisca” with its clashing, explosive opening that cannot be mistaken for anything but an invitation to let loose. The ensemble, conducted by Evan Lawson, provided plenty of colour in their masterfully balanced accompaniment. The sensitive articulation of harpist Samantha Ramirez and thrilling execution of the piece’s signature viola solo by Anthony Chataway deserve special mention.
Listening to and watching old recordings, I wonder whether anyone could or would want to perform the Folk Songs with the same accents and dance moves today as the Songs‘ dedicatee Cathy Berberian.
The concert also included a stunning performance by Nicholas Yates of Berio’s Sequenza VIIb for soprano saxophone. The piece’s drone was provided by string players spaced around the Richmond Uniting Church. So subtle was their movement and quiet was their playing that I became conscious of the ethereal sound over a minute or so. What a beautiful effect. Yates’ agile execution of the popping, pointillist piece was something to behold! The concert concluded with Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? performed by Rubiks Collective. Jacob Abela (piano), Tamara Kohler (flute), and Kaylie Melville (percussion) move through their sparse parts at their own rate, coming together at certain vertiginous moments. These meeting-points become moments of great focus as the performers become aware that they are a page or so away from each other. The performers have to make so many decisions in executing their part that I was put in mind of Alistair Noble’s recent lecture on Feldman at the Melbourne Music Analysis Summer School. Noble argued that, given the tight-knit community within which Feldman’s works were composed and performed, he assumed a certain stylistic palette when composing indeterminate elements in his works. For the most part we cannot hope to—and may not want to—recover the assumed stylistic traits of the early performances of Feldman’s works, but there is certainly interesting work to be done in that direction.
Rubiks and Forest Collective
Richmond Uniting Church
19 December 2015
Michael Bakrnčev, The Virtuous Woman with the Watermelon; Luciano Berio, Sequenza VIIb, Folk Songs; Morton Feldman, Why Patterns?
Forest Collective’s “Moonfall” programme explored two important aspects of the Metropolis festival’s theme, “Music inspired by the moving image.” Firstly, Forest Collective recognised the importance of computer games to any discussion of music and the moving image today. Secondly, the concert was downright creepy.
Without culturally- and physiologically-ingrained harmonic cues, contemporary music can fall into an emotional binary of anodyne lyricism and anger. Humour and fear are like lyricism and anger’s more sophisticated cousins. Without wanting to be prescriptive (a piece need not aim for any of these emotional modes, nor any emotional mode at all), humour and fear show that a composer has enough command over their work to shape a complex audience experience. In film, the same distinction could be drawn between a slasher film that relies on loud and sudden noises to disturb the audience and the unnerving qualities of, say, a Tarkovsky film (more about Tarkovsky in a forthcoming review of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s first Metropolis programme!).
Forest Collective built their programme around Marcus Fjellström’s triptych Odboy and Erordog (available on Fjellström’s Youtube channel). Each episode reflects the sequential, task-driven atmosphere of certain nightmares. Odboy and his trusty Erordog embark on foreboding journeys to perform arduous “chores.” As in nightmares, the imperative to perform the tasks is overwhelming while the meaning of the tasks is obscure. The journeys will be familiar to all retro gamers and light-sleepers, including “finding the big house” and “crossing the spider pit” while “looking out for the wild boar” (echoes of Conquests of Camelot?). The first episode includes an electronic score by Fjellström utilising rhythmic record pops and theatre organ that complement the grainy black-and-white video. The second two episodes include written scores for the ensemble, who provided a sparse layering of extended techniques and musical accents. Fjellström is currently working on what appears to be a sci-fi chamber opera entitled “Boris Christ.” Hopefully we can get it over to Australia (Forest Collective I’m looking at you).
Odboy and Erordog combines black-and-white film aesthetics with 1980s computer-game graphics. Computer games form an essential part of screen culture for anybody under the age of forty. While those who did not grow up with computer games may recognise the burgeoning computer game market, those who spent too long in front of screens as children will understand the emotional resonance of old, lo-fi computer game aesthetics. If I may indulge in some folk-psychology, perhaps this is because an active imagination is needed to turn a few blocky pixels into a whole fantasy-world. On the other hand, the stark colour contrasts and blocky designs of old games have design elements unto themselves that are, for want of a better word, beautiful.
Forest Collective threaded a series of dark and foreboding chamber works between the Fjellström films, beginning with Evan Lawson’s arrangement of Rupert Holmes’ song “Moonfall” from the 1985 musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The musical is based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens and was the first musical to feature multiple endings, which were chosen by an audience vote. Lawson states in the programme that he wanted to capture the “smoky streets of nineteenth-century London.” He certainly achieves this goal with a murky bed of clarinets (Vilan Mai and Aaron Klein) and shimmering string tremoli.
The concert featured the world première of Evan Lawson’s Orpheus and the Cave. The piece is a study for a large-scale orchestral work featuring two solo sopranos and solo harp. In the study, Lawson’s usual lush sound palette is stripped back and spread about the room. The spatial distribution of the ensemble is some of the most effective that I have heard. The piece begins with a drum roll behind the audience, before Orpheus (Rosemary Ball) sings to Euridice (Teresa Duddy) across the room. The solo violins (Katriona Tsyrlin and Isabel Hede) to the left and right of the audience create a striking stereo effect. At the end of the piece, Mai and Tanya Vincent on clarinet and flute leave the auditorium to play a perhaps too-recognisable excerpt of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers as “the birds calling out on the surface of Earth.”
Forest Collective’s dark programme triggered a series of questions surrounding horror and music. While sudden, high-pitched and dissonant sounds may appeal to our fundamental survival instincts, how do we process subtler unsettling sounds? If we are taught to recognise certain sounds as “creepy,” then how can we access the emotional impact of creepy music from throughout history? What is the first recorded piece of “scary” music?
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre
7 May 2015
Marcus Fjellström, Odboy and Erordog; Rupert Holmes (arr. Evan Lawson), Moonfall; Evan Lawson, Orpheus in the Cave.
For three balmy nights the Forest Collective filled the Abbotsford Convent with film, dance and music. The inaugural Flooding in the Garden festival included improvised extended vocals by Jenny Barnes and Carolyn Connors, dance by Elanor Webber, pop-elf William Elm and an independent film series also curated by Webber. The florid programme also included a series of contemporary notated works as part of Forest Collective’s own multi-disciplinary concert and Benjamin Anderson’s bass trombone recital Mixed Mediums.
Moving between the distressed art-deco rooms of the Convent, each new medium was an unexpected delight. William Elm festooned the Rosina Auditorium with fairy lights and lamps for his set of puckish accordion duets. The breathtaking physicality of Webber’s The Texture of It exploded in the Chapel. The venue was lit from inside and outside the building, recreating lighting effects from different times of the day. Rays of afternoon light streamed in through the stained-glass windows, nocturnal lamp-light lit the contorted bodies of the dancers and a diffuse morning glow filled the space. An ensemble including Benjamin Harrison, Rob McDonald and Jennifer Mills performed instrumental textures in tight coordination with the dancers, leaving one guessing where composition left off and improvisation began. Later that night Webber transformed the hall into the Chapel of the Independent Film, with a series of experimental and cine-dance films exploring shape, colour and texture.
In Benjamin Anderson’s recital, the audience was confronted with a projection of the movie-star face of General MacArthur and a recording of his 1962 speech to the Corp of Cadets. MacArthur declared the dawn of a “new age”: the space age. So too was it a new age for Australia, one defined by the move away from our traditional British defenders and towards tighter military ties with the United States. Perhaps no moment exemplified this shift more than MacArthur fleeing the Philippines to Australia in 1942. A plaque at a disused railway platform in the miniscule South Australian town of Terowie marks the spot where he famously claimed he would return to the Philippines. He quickly assumed control of the Australian Forces as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the South-West Pacific Area, setting up his base in Brisbane. So, this digression argues, we have at least some reason to project this speech in a hall in Melbourne today. Anderson walks in dressed in a military parade uniform and begins playing Robert Erickson’s General Speech. Erickson transcribes MacArthur’s speech for the bass trombone, focussing mainly on the pitch of MacArthur’s voice (admittedly he has to exaggerate, MacArthur’s delivery being fairly monotone). There are scored coughs and sips of water, the only relief from what is a fairly dull setting of the text. The piece was composed in 1969 and I can imagine composers today, with their greater familiarity with extended techniques, would make a more inventive transcription. It would be good to hear several different transcriptions of the speech by different composers, or perhaps transcriptions of a more recent speech by an Australian politician. As the musicologist Linda Kouvaras explored in a recent paper at the Musicological Society of Australia’s annual conference, Youtube is already rife with this sort of musical play. With General Speech, Anderson established a theme of the concert: the bass trombone as caricature. Anderson is a tall young performer with loads of character, making him the ideal performer for these works.
The parodic bass trombone reached its zenith with Andrew Aronowicz’s The Physiology of Taste. Here the bass trombone is the nineteenth-century gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as he slurps and degustates his way through his famous treatise The Physiology of Taste. The first movement, “The pleasures of the initial tasting,” consists aptly of tentative, pattering little bursts occasionally punctuated by a sucking smack of the lips. Everything about this movement is about the lips and the tip of the tongue. The second movement, “Relishing the Texture and Composition of the Delicacies” explores longer tones of different timbres, from the purest high note to the instrument’s flatulent bass. It was at this point in the concert that I questioned why I ever go to concerts by established ensembles, younger performers being often more inventive, daring and downright humourous. The third movement, “The Savours,” presents the four tastes: salty, sour, bitter and sweet. Anderson brilliantly executed the dry, shaking, stabbing “puh puh puh” of salt; a puckered and wheezing sourness (exaggerated by a nasal double mute); the cracklingly-low bitterness of espresso coffee (as Brillat-Savarin writes of Melbourne’s favourite way to make coffee: “I have also tried to make coffee in a high pressure boiling apparatus; all I obtained however was a fluid intensely bitter, and strong enough to take the skin from the throat of a Cossack.”). Aronowicz’s depiction of sweetness attempted to reflect “every refinement of temptation” with which, Brillat-Savarin writes, we must use to convince the diner, who has already satisfied their hunger, to indulge. The final movement, “The Irrepressible Urge to Gorge,” represented Brillat-Savarin’s least favourite diner, one who cannot resist overeating and getting drunk. Anderson played higher and louder in between great big gulping sounds. I imagined the waiter in the Monty Python scene (“but it is wafer-thin”) as Anderson finished with a series of tiny toots and then a burp.
In Charles MacInnes’ cirque, “stuck in traffic, an out of work clown tweets about his daily annoyances to a growing audience hungry for the next distraction and amusement.” The impression I got from Anderson’s repeated checking of his phone and restless fidgeting was more of a music student struggling to get down to their daily practice (or perhaps a PhD student writing reviews instead of their thesis).
Character pieces were only one facet of Anderson’s immense programme. Wuorinen’s trio for bass trombone, tuba and double bass ranges between low, pulsing phrases and lyrical episodes exploring the instruments’ baritone registers. The brighter double bass played by Miranda Hill cut through the mellower brass with agile lines. It is a transparent and self-contained chamber work out of place, perhaps welcomely-so, in this character-driven programme.
Elliott Hughes’ Underdogs, with regrets is about iterations of forms, inspired by Jasper Johns’ exhibition “Regrets,” in which he recreated a photograph in multiple mediums. Hughes repeated gestures inspired by Charles Mingus with several different mutes and musical variations. It was not unlike the way one mulls over and replays regrettable moments in different lights. The piece uses subtle and tasteful uses of electronics. The spatialisation of captured trombone sounds expanded slowly over the duration of the piece, subtly producing a chorus of distant-sounding, growling and erupting brass.
Martijn Padding’s Schumann’s Last Procession for bass trombone and harp slowly takes apart a loping, bluesy duet where the two instruments also play a kick drum and a hihat. The piece devolves until all that is left is the percussion and a low, drawn-out note from the trombone. I only learned afterward of the programme: the walks Schumann was allowed to take to the statue of Beethoven in Bonn while he was receiving brutal, experimental treatments at Endenich, Europe’s first psychiatric hospital.
Peter De Jager’s Timescales for solo trombone and lighting design is comfortably dense. I quite liked the choice of hyper-real purple, green and blue lighting for different moments in the piece, not unlike an updated version of Scriabin’s colour organ. In another Scriabin-esque gesture, the piece presents three formal levels depicting cosmic, human and atomic time scales, from drawn-out modal pitches to expressive harmonies to chromatic interjections. In terms of pitch and rhythmic material it was by far the most complex piece on the programme and well deserving (if not requiring) another listen.
The bass trombone rarely receives a whole recital unto itself, though as one audience member mentioned after the show: “I didn’t know what to expect, then I realised it was a music recital.” As the title “Mixed Mediums” further suggests, Anderson’s programme encompassed so much more. Costume, lighting, performative elements and even food (petit fours representing the four flavours were served at interval) contributed to this series of new works by young composers, keeping the audience thinking for the duration of the concert.
The Mingled Yarn
The mixed-medium theme continued with Forest Collective’s theatre-and-music programme The Mingled Yarn. The five contemporary soliloquies based by Samuel Yeo inspired by characters from Shakespeare’s plays were in turns powerful (Sam Lavery’s Caesar) and hilarious (Julia Lamb’s Juliet). Musically, the Forest Collective took a little time to get their ear in. Was this because of the abrupt beginning, where Lawson walked in and immediately started conducting? It was a clever, informal gesture in the streaming afternoon light of the backstage area of the Rosina Auditorium, but intonation issues plagued William Byrd’s “Kyrie” from the Mass for Three Voices, which was played by violin, viola and cello with occasional humming from the vocalists in the style of John McCaughey. By the time of Evan Lawson’s Winter Canticle, however, the ensemble was focussed and responding well to Lawson’s energetic and inspired conducting. the piece is a reworking of previous material, taking the emotional structure of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as a formal basis. An introductory episode of drones and vocalises gives way to an astounding rhythmic explosion. The three vocalists declare “Winter!” as febrile string phrases scurry about. The voices speak and whisper phrases from the play in an emotional polyphony, accompanied by energetic scrubbing in the strings. Lawson has learnt well from his twentieth-century heroes including Britten and Vaughan Williams; even at its dynamic peak the ensemble is always colourful, transparent and mobile. Throughout the concert, the three female vocalists each had their time to shine. Christine Storey’s performance of Flow my Tears was a true interpretation, with an expressive reading of the text and appropriate tempo and use of vibrato. Stefanie Dingnis’ rendition of My Thoughts are Wing’d presented an uncommonly clear and sensitive voice, while Rosemary Ball’s Chant D’Ariel by Arthur Honegger was a tour de force.
The Flooding in the Garden Festival is an excellent way to spend some warm late-spring nights in Melbourne. While the diversity of the programme is appreciated, perhaps the organisation is currently a bit diffuse. A single schedule and map of the Convent would have made planning one’s evenings easier. Here’s hoping this was the first of many.
Flooding in the Garden Festival
11–13 December, 2014
Composed by Evan Lawson
Libretto by Samuel Yeo
Rosina Auditorium, Abbotsford Convent
By Alexander O’Sullivan
Joseph Kerman, who has been writing on opera since the 1950s, predicted a few years ago that the medium’s future would not lie in traditional houses, with their costly choruses, stage machinery, orchestras and roster of international stars. Rather, it would lie in smaller groups, like the Forest Collective, performing ‘chamber operas’ in the model of Britten’s Albert Herring or The Turn of the Screw.
Evan Lawson (composer) and Samuel Yeo’s (librettist) Calypso is composed on an even smaller scale than these models. This forty-minute opera explores a brief episode from the Odyssey, describing how Odysseus becomes shipwrecked on an island and is detained by Calypso (sung by Lotte Betts-Dean on December 5). His memory of Penelope compels him to leave, leaving Calypso heartbroken. Despite the short length of the work, I was struck by how little happens. Oedipus Rex and Elektra (to cite widely differing operatic approaches to Greek myths) have relatively little action, but are unified by a progressive buildup of tension that leads to a violent denouement. Calypso on the other hand merely reaches out her hand to the departing Odysseus—hardly a climatic moment for the audience (and unrealised in the staging of the performance I attended).
Lawson and Yeo have constructed a psychodrama where Calypso is torn between conflicting emotions, symbolised by her servant Uriel and the goddesses Athena and Artemis. Artemis, forcefully sung by Rosemary Ball, represents the will of the Gods, or as Yeo points out in his programme note, the desire for mythological characters to play out their lives according to fate. Athena, whose more sympathetic music was radiantly realised by Janet Todd, urges Calypso to ignore the will of the gods and enjoy Odysseus’s company. Uriel, sung by Michael Lampard, represents the real world, to which Calypso must return from her fantasies.
Lawson’s music is, bar to bar, beautiful. Making the most of his small ensemble, he was able to achieve a variety of surprising effects, displaying a keen knowledge of the limitations of his ensemble. The young soloists and instrumentalists seemed fairly comfortable with his lines, and navigated several tricky moments well. I found the Rosina Auditorium, with its ballroom acoustic, far too loud for the forces assembled, and yearned for a proscenium and an orchestra pit – luxuries clearly beyond the capabilities of the company.
It is clear that Yeo and Lawson’s creative conception exceeded their means. It may be the stench of Wagner that has descended over Melbourne that explains my puzzlement over the piece’s brevity. I thought the ideas, both musical and poetic, cried out for a longer and more detailed treatment than they received here. The music also called out for a larger ensemble, or at least some doublings on the strings, given their sustained lines. Smaller works are more difficult to realise than larger ones. Consider the forty minutes of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex,a score that displays a complete unity of conception, where every part, from note to phrase to scene, logically develops a coherent argument. In Calypso I was presented with parts, sometimes intriguing, often skilful and always beautiful, that failed however to present a clear vision of the plight of the heroine.
Perhaps I was expecting more sex. Despite Lawson mentioning Britten’s Peter Grimes and Death in Venice as inspirations, I thought A Midsummer Night’s Dream a more obvious inspiration, for example in the combination of harp and harpsichord. Calypso‘s music sometimes resembled that of the latter work, but without the erotic excitement in Britten’s world of the fairies. I simply didn’t believe that Calypso wanted to bonk Odysseus. Instead, the static staging and somewhat awkward gestures of the singers imparted a severely chaste atmosphere to the proceedings.
Yeo’s libretto sometimes errs on the side of pretension (“as fragile as the candle made of glass” – a Game of Thrones reference?), but in general offers short images well-suited to musical setting. Lawson has the right idea about text-setting, but I was sometimes reminded of a quote from the Dream: “his speech was like a tangled chain; nothing impaired, but all disordered.” This criticism could apply to much opera in English: having deciphered the singers’ diction, the audience is then faced with an abstract poetic text, a further obfuscating layer to be untangled, before they can even consider its relations with the music.
Performing opera on any scale is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking and new works often create issues that retard the rehearsal process immensely. Also, given the current economic and institutional climate in opera, producing new works must always result in a compromise (witness the recent trials of the Met’s commissioning programme). The Forest Collective has put together an accurate and enjoyable realisation of a new score, and is to be congratulated. Perhaps next time there will need to be more realistic expectations about what can be done with such small resources.
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.
7 April 2013
For their 2013 season the multi-arts Forest Collective bring chamber music, visual art, theatre and opera to the sprawling Abbotsford Convent. Opening the season is Shared Sounds, a juxtaposition of established and emerging British and Australian composers. Alongside this explicit rationale is the concert’s implicit exploration of the organic and the elemental.
Stephanie Osztreicher transformed the peeling walls of the convent’s Industrial School into a tulgey wood of ladders, music stands, paper flowers and projections as the evening’s autumn storm rolled overhead. Travelling to the concert, the rising smell of “petrichor” (meaning “dry earth,” a term coined by Australian scientists to describe the smell of rain after a dry spell) was an olfactory prelude to the rain-themed music of the Forest Collective’s ensemble in residence of the same name (Jess Fotinos, harp, Alexina Hawkins, viola, Rowan Hamwood, flute).
Fotinos and Daniel Todd (tenor) opened the concert with the spiritual transformations of St. Narcissus into tree, fish, girl and dancer in Britten’s Canticle No. 5 for tenor and harp. Britten’s evocative harp writing was juxtaposed with May Lyon’s own mercurial word painting in A Dream Within a Dream, based on a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.
The ritual continued with Benjamin Harrison’s improvisation for solo trumpet, a masterful exploration of whistling wind, echoing brays and muted flatulence.
A sequence of chamber works by Barry Conyngham, Conyngham’s teacher Toru Takemitsu, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Johanna Selleck and Evan Lawson highlighted the strength of the “collective” as an ensemble, corralled and conducted by Lawson. A highlight for me was Turnage’s Three Farewells for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. Lush harmonies and timbres filled the concrete chamber before clearing for a pointed and intimate encounter with Hawkins’ viola solo, with grumbling accompaniment from Ayrlie Lane’s cello.
While not quite the “interactive chamber music experience” promised by the season program, Shared Sounds plunges the audience into a rich atmosphere of water, wind and trees deserving of the collective’s name. The program also demonstrated a continuing interest among young composers in finding new effects and manners of working with text within an extended-tonal style.