Tag Archives: Jennifer Higdon

Metropolis New Music Festival 2016: The Letter String Quartet, MSO: City Scapes

For their second Metropolis concert, the MSO teamed up with The Song Company to take us from sweeping urban vistas right down into the streets of renaissance Paris and London. Emerging from this program was a double-sided view of the city as the source and solution to specifically urban problems. But first Australia’s new music dream team The Letter String Quartet treated the audience milling around the MRC foyer to excerpts from Wally Gunn’s moody work Blood. Perched in a window opening out onto the city night, the foyer concert introduced a welcome buzz to the cultural bunker that is Southbank. If TLSQ’s stylistic range—from artpop ballads to arch contemporary string writing—is anything to go by, then we can expect interesting things from the quartet’s concert on 26 November including new works created in collaboration with Bree Van Reyk, Ned Collette, Yana Alana, Zoë Barry Jed Palmer, and Mick Harvey.

With the MSO ranged expectantly on stage, The Song Company burst into Clément Janequin’s sixteenth-century setting of Parisian street cries. Singing from the gallery high above the audience, the cries of Paris rang out with an eerie clarity, like ghosts haunting the MRC. This haunting effect was even stronger in Orlando Gibbons’ The Cryes of London as the ensemble hummed a viol consort accompaniment. Weaving street cries into polyphonic music was a popular renaissance trope suggesting an awareness of the correlation between the multiple independent lines of polyphonic music and renaissance rationality and individualism. The cries are also a snapshot of the unique problems of urban life, including how to feed such a large concentration of people and how to control the rats and mice that accompany people wherever they go. Luciano Berio updated the trope with atonal polyphony in his The Cries of London in 1974. The Song Company’s lucid and nuanced performance of this modern masterpiece was by far the highlight of the evening.

The composer Michael Kurth also takes the streets as his inspiration in Everything Lasts Forever, which includes three pieces inspired by Atlanta street art. The cartoon feet of the street artist Toes are represented by swaggering slap bass. The pathos of a bird singing on a boarded-up door is conjured in a sadly lyrical movement. A loping movement in an additive meter presents an ironic commentary on the message “We Have All the Time in the World.”

The program contrasted the human interest of Janequin, Gibbons, Kurth, and Berio with pieces depicting cityscapes by Aaron Copland and Jennifer Higdon. These cityscape pieces present another side of the modern city: the city as a symbol of free market capitalism. The twentieth century is perhaps the first time in history where you have a piece like Jennifer Higdon’s City Scape where, in the composer’s words, “steel structures present an image of boldness, strength and growth, teeming with commerce and the people who work and live there.” Higdon wrote these words in 2002 and may think differently now. The global financial crisis of 2008 revealed that these steel skyscrapers were in fact images of selfishness and fragile growth, teeming with hedge funds undermining the world economy. The piece’s third movement is another hymn to a road, a “representation of all those roadways and main arteries that flow through cities.”  As I pointed out in my review of the first MSO Metropolis concert, this climate change music is already sounding dated, more a relic of the twentieth century than a music of our time. It’s a pity, because Higdon’s piece really is a virtuosic kaleidoscope of orchestral gestures depicting, as she writes, “the diversity in city streets.” But to contemporary listeners faced with climate change and fragile global economies, the teeming, unregulated economy of the city sounds more like a problem rather than a status quo to be celebrated.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, The Song Company
Conducted by Robert Spano and Antony Pitts
Metropolis New Music Festival
The Melbourne Recital Centre
18 May 2016

Clément Janequin, Voulez ouyr les cris de Paris; Aaron Copland, Music for a Great City; Orlando Gibbons, The Cryes of London; Michael Kurth, Everything Lasts Forever; Luciano Berio, Cries of London; Jennifer Higdon, City Scape

Plexus: Medley Recital Series

Medley Hall Recital Series
1 June, 2014

Jennifer Higdon, DASH
Charles Hoag, SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag
Ian Whitney, Tanzendanses
Iain Grandage, The Keep
Charles Ives, Largo
Paul Dean, Fragmented Journeys

Plexus’ first concert at Medley Hall gives me the opportunity to introduce both a new ensemble and a new venue to Partial Durations. Though new to this site, both have fascinating histories that informed a multifaceted night of contemporary music. Plexus follow the instrumentation of the Verdehr Trio founded in 1972: violin, clarinet and piano. They also follow the Verdehr tradition of commissioning new work for the (now not so) neglected ensemble. The Verdehr Trio commissioned works by some of the most important composers of the late twentieth century, including the well-known Australians composers Peter Sculthorpe and Barry Conyngham.

Now a standard piece of repertoire, Jennifer Higdon’s DASH offered plenty of opportunities for the ensemble to show off. Rushing syncopations between the violin (Monica Curro) and clarinet (Philip Arkinstall) and siren-like rhythmic ostinati in the piano (Stefan Cassomenos) create a charged atmosphere that culminates in hockets between the instruments like the flashing lights of police cars. From the beginning it was evident that Plexus do not hold back, even in a room as small and live as Medley Hall.

After charging the room with this incredible sound, Plexus moved on to an older Verdehr commission: Charles Hoag’s SweetMelancholy(lostyourdolly)SlowDragRag. The piece is absolutely charming, demonstrating a refined compositional culture that plays on tropes and clichés with absolute self-aware mastery. The heads, moments of great jubilation, separate darker, brooding movements.

Iain Grandage provided the ensemble with an excerpt from his opera The Keep, which is partly an attempt to rediscover the folk tales of Grandage’s Anglo-Celtic heritage. Grandage is certainly not the first Australian composer to attempt this reconnection through music (I’m thinking of Fritz Hart and Percy Grainger). Would it be completely amiss to say that we witness this phenomenon at times of great uncertainty about Australia’s future? This is certainly not to say that Grandage shares any of Hart or Grainger’s views, but at times when the contingency of belonging in Australia is laid bare by political or environmental crisis, people start searching inwards as well as outwards for a sense of stability.

Cassomenos, speaking with much character and equal portions of false modesty explained playing Charles Ives’ Largo for violin, clarinet and piano as “like early music.” The funny thing is that Ives’ music can so often sound like the newest thing on the programme. The room really came into its own with this piece. Arkinstall’s perfectly-voiced clarinet line embraced the audience and Curro was able to make the most of the piece’s final, transcendent violin note.

In keeping with the philosophy of the ensemble, the concert included a recent commission by an Australian composer: Paul Dean’s Fragmented Journeys. Originally intended as a joke (is there a more worn-out journalistic cliché than talking about musical “journeys”?), the piece did in fact end up reflecting four journeys that the composer and his friends had variously taken. The first movement, “Fraught,” was particularly welcome as the first example of a “flat” texture in the whole concert. That is to say, the instruments were given equal importance, whereas elsewhere there was generally a principal voice and accompaniment. Here one found a punctum from the piano here, a warble from the clarinet there, or some frenetic scrubbing from the violin. The movement gains momentum, but is spiky from beginning to end, like rolling down a hill of thistles. I think this fits the description Dean provides of the movement depicting “a journey which I just didn’t want to take!” “An Unwanted Disturbance” is really quite iike DASH until the clarinet (piloted expertly by Arkinstall, though you’d want to, playing a piece of Dean’s in front of the man) enters and climbs ever higher and louder. “A Turn for the Worse” depicts a visit to a nursing home, and judging from the creepy piano noodling and see-sawing violin Dean felt a little uneasy from the start. When the booming piano chords and screeching clarinet enter, one knows that the situation only deteriorated. Given these experiences I can only suggest that Dean restrict himself to musical journeys from here on.

Medley Hall could well be the most unique music venue in Melbourne. Since its construction in 1893 on one of the most affluent streets in Melbourne (it was built for the widow of an arms dealer), it has variously been an Arbitration Office, an Italian club (hosting weekly boxing matches), home of a vigneron who graced one of the stained-glass windows with a bullet hole, the set of a Nicolas Cage film and, now, a residential college. Craftsmen and materials for the ornate Victorian Baroque parlor used for concerts, as well as the rest of the mansion, were imported from Italy. Just saying, if you are looking for a space for your next chamber music concert, Medley would be a great place to start. As to Plexus, I can only look forward to their next forty years of activity.


Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.