Tag Archives: Mary Finsterer

Sydney Chamber Opera, Ensemble Offspring: Biographica by Mary Finsterer

Biographica, Sydney Chamber Opera. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Review by Alistair Noble

Opening this week as part of the Sydney Festival, Mary Finsterer’s new opera Biographica presents a satisfying opportunity to hear some splendid performers (in what, by some measures, might be considered to be Australia’s leading opera company) presenting a major new work by one of our finest living composers.

Like Elliott Gyger, whose first opera Fly Away Peter was heard in Sydney and Melbourne during 2016, Finsterer has come to the writing of opera in mid-career. Indeed, she has written very little vocal music of any kind since the 1980s, so Biographica represents a new turn for her in several respects—as vocal music, as a theatre work, and as a large-scale piece. The duration is an interesting new development as many of Finsterer’s best-known works are relatively short, while the only piece longer than 30 minutes in her published catalogue prior to Biographica was the sound-track for Shirley Barrett’s film South Solitary.

So, it would seem logical that Finsterer’s approach to composing a large-form (90-minute) opera would be informed by her experience as a composer for cinema. This does seem to be the case, and Biographica benefits from a cinematic sense of timing—but also, more importantly, from the composer’s filmic skill with pulling focus. Her strong musical personality is such that it easily takes the foreground—indeed this arresting quality has always been a key characteristic of Finsterer’s work. But here she shows a deep, 3-dimensional capacity for shifting the musical material to the middle-ground of the theatrical experience, and even at times to the full background, thus allowing space for the subtlety of a dramatic moment or gesture to be seen and felt by the audience.

Biographica is a staged meditation on the life and work of Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), a Renaissance polymath whose abilities and life-story make someone like Leonardo Da Vinci seem rather dull. In many ways, Cardano’s legacy is much more important—while Da Vinci left us the Mona Lisa, Cardano’s intellectual legacy (to mention just a few things) includes pioneering work on mathematical probability, theories of how to win at card games, and designs for complex universal joints that are still used today in your car. When it came to gambling, Cardano was known to be a violent player; he always set out to win by applying his mathematical theories, so card-swapping interference from old-style cheats sent him into a rage—one imagines because they upset his calculations even more than his finances.

And then there was his personal life… hell’s bells. To say that Cardano had a dysfunctional family would be a kindly euphemism. His biography begins with an illegitimate conception and his mother’s failed attempts at abortion (she is played here by Jane Sheldon). It goes downhill from there, and in the opera we witness a few select low-lights: his beloved eldest son (Simon Lobelson) was executed for poisoning his own wife; his second son (Andrew Goodwin) ended in prison for theft (but not before Cardano Sr. cut his ear off); his daughter (Jessica O’Donoghue) died of syphilis… one sad case the master physician could not cure.

How does one present a tale like this in operatic form? How does one compose an opera at all in the 21st century? The answer, as discovered by Finsterer, is in a carefully designed set of twelve tableaux, and a main character who does not sing. The part of Cardano is played by the actor Mitchell Butel with sincerity and gravity. Here is a man of towering genius, misdirected passions, and personal tragedy… yet in the end his passing is radiant. Opera, of course, was a historicist art-form from the beginning (developed in the years just following Cardano’s own lifetime) in its concerns with reinventing a lost theatrical sensibility of some imagined golden age, and in the use of historical or mythological tales as a thinly veiled means for engaging with contemporary issues. So, while it was always concerned with the past, it has never been about the past. This deep reflection on Cardano’s work and life is really about us… you and I and our magnificent, disturbing world.

To some extent, Biographica is also a more universal reflection on the relation of work to life. Cardano’s personal life is sensational in a tabloid sense, but ultimately his intellectual work is surely more important. Or maybe not? Can we separate work from life, and if so, how? As a consulting doctor to a dying archbishop, Cardano delivers a lecture on hygiene, arguing that the man himself does not require treatment, “…it is the room around him that must be cured!”. This and other insights grew from his belief in the inter-connectedness of things. The heavenly bodies, he noted, drag entire oceans in their wake as they dance through space. How could they fail to exert an equally overwhelming influence upon tiny creatures like us?

In the music for Biographica, Finsterer re-processes Renaissance musical language but not simply as pastiche, this is something more profound… and in fact the composer has been working on this opera for quite a few years, developing her thinking about this musical world through several ‘satellite’ pieces (to borrow Larry Sitsky’s phrase), such as Angelus (a 2015 trio for clarinet, cello and piano) and Silva (a concerto for percussion and ensemble composed in 2012). In these pieces, we find Renaissance materials (melodic, harmonic, and gestural) filtered through a 21st century sensibility and technique.

Biographica, Sydney Chamber Opera. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

How does a non-tonal composer assimilate diatonic and triadic materials meaningfully? This is not as simple a question as it sounds, and I suspect that it is in this area that the composer has made full and effective use of the several years spent developing this work. At the same time, we now notice through the filter of Biographica that intervals of 3rds (perhaps especially minor 3rds) have always been strongly present in Finsterer’s music, even in her more abstract pieces of the 1990s—as also is a tendency to build music structures around drone-like pedal points and long-held centric tones. Both of these have been made to serve as points of linkage for the incorporation of the Renaissance-inspired materials. In terms of orchestration, Finsterer is a composer who has always used extended playing techniques fluently as very natural sonorities alongside more conventional sounds, they never seem like mere effects in her music. The score for Biographica is full of lovely colours, both dramatic and subtle. The result is captivating, intelligent, and theatrically powerful.

The libretto by Tom Wright is complex and subtly nuanced, with layered textures that are an effective way to present some of the complexity of the stories and characters. The text spoken by Cardano (Mitchell Butel) is strong and offers a fine vehicle for the actor. Jane Sheldon is consistently excellent as Cardano’s mother, the special instrument of her higher register used to great effect. The omni-talented Jessica O’Donoghue (a wonderful pop singer-songwriter as well as classical performer) finds an elegant awkwardness for the tragic daughter of Cardano. One hopes to see more of her on the opera stage in future. The splendid mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser almost steals the show, both in the sense of her wonderful lower register playing a crucial part in Finsterer’s ensemble writing, and also in that her aria (tragi-comically sung as she takes a pause in dying from poison) somehow forms the dark heart of the opera, like the black hole at the centre of a galaxy.

The production is poetic, creative, and effective. Directed by Janice Muller (with support from Danielle Maas as Assistant Director), the staging is minimalist but with dark depths and surprising angles, making full use of the huge floor-space at Carriageworks. Designer Charles Davis has succeeded in creating a Renaissance effect, without the over-blown sense of a historical drama… it’s subtle enough to be almost a taste, or a philosophy, rather than a mere representation. The performance is gorgeously lit (by Matt Cox)—and the few moments in the later scenes where the lighting seems less convincing coincide with moments where a little dramatic momentum is lost generally (such as in scenes 10 and 11, and the transition to the final scene, ‘Day of Death’), suggesting that some additional rehearsal time might have been useful.

Opera is in its very nature a collaborative art-form, and this performance of Biographica is certainly the result of a very impressive and imaginative team-effort. Unlike a film or a play, however, this is a staged work that very clearly could only have been conceived by a composer, and in this sense it seems fair to give the final tribute to Mary Finsterer. Biographica is a beautiful, haunting and thought-provoking work from an important composer of our time.

Biographica
Music composed by Mary Finsterer
Libretto by Tom Wright
Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring.
Carriageworks, 7-9 & 11-13 January 2017
Review by Alistair Noble

 

 

 

Plexus: L’Invitation au château

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Plexus (Philip Arkinstall, Monica Curro, and Stefan Cassomenos) with Helen Morse and Paul English at Cranlana. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Surrounded by autumnal trees, lush lawns, and the Italianate outcroppings of Harold Desbrowe-Annear’s sunken garden, it is easy to forget that Cranlana is only twenty minutes from the city centre. The house is a cultural treasure-trove, with portraits of the Myer family surrounded by Chinese vases and dwarfed by a painting of Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, and the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (yes, that’s the Earl of Sandwich). Described by Lady Marigold Southey as the “family function centre,” none of the Myer family currently live at Cranlana. The building still has the distinct feeling of a home, perhaps due to the steady stream of guests who gather there for lectures, concerts, fundraisers, and masterclasses. On this particular occasion Cranlana opened its doors for Launch Housing, an organisation dedicated to ending homelessness. On the initiative of Josephine Ridges, Melbourne’s serial commissioners of new music Plexus and the actors Helen Morse and Paul English volunteered a humorous and poignant concert combining music and the spoken word.

Launch Housing’s Deputy CEO Dr Heather Holst explained the frequent case of pregnant women accessing housing services because their current living situation is no longer suitable for raising a family. Launch Housing envisages a purpose-built apartment building that not only provides shelter to these women and their families, but also provides them with access to Melbourne’s cultural riches. While Plexus’ program had distinct ANZAC Day overtones, there was plenty to make one consider the themes of home, safety, and belonging.

Stravinsky originally wrote Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) “to be read, played, and danced” by three actors and a septet of musicians. The performance may also include dancers contending with Stravinsky’s lively rhythms and constantly changing time signatures. Plexus and English had their work cut out for them and they rose to the challenge superbly. Plexus tore through the piece’s waltzes, tangos, and Stravinsky’s faltering attempt at jazz. English captivated the audience with a truly wicked devil.

The Soldier’s Tale tells the parable of a soldier returning home who trades his fiddle with the devil for wealth. Awakening from his dream of riches, he has been turned into a wraith-like figure who his friends and family can no longer see. In the original Russian tale the soldier is a deserter, but in The Soldier’s Tale his past is ambiguous. We are simply told that he is broken by war. Instead of divine justice, his trade with the devil is almost accidental, the result of seeing a genial enough face after so much hardship. The Soldier’s Tale draws the audience’s attention to the soldier’s experience rather than its cause. We might approach the issue of homelessness with as few preconceptions and as much empathy. A lack of shelter is a basic emergency to be dealt with before the effects of long-term homelessness take hold, including estrangement from one’s family, networks, and invisibility to society at large.

The theme of anonymity continued with the world première of And I Always Thought by the American composer Martin Bresnick. Bresnick is one of the most thoughtful of contemporary composers, treading a line between craft, art, and experiment. The piece takes as its poetic inspiration two poems by Bertold Brecht: “And I Always Thought”  and “Legend of the Unknown Soldier Beneath the Triumphal Arch”. The pathos of the former infects the subject of the latter. I take away from “And I Always Thought” dismay at a grinding condition of existence.

[…] When I say how things are
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up.
Surely you see that.

The poem’s first phrase is an artistic manifesto in itself: “And I always thought that the simplest words / Must be enough”. But the poem’s last line “Surely you see that” calls the first into question, leaving Brecht’s “simple words” hanging in the air. This question  provides us with a way of interpreting Bresnick’s approach to the second poem. Legend of the Unknown Soldier Beneath the Triumphal Arch describes the relentless pursual of the unknown soldier “from Moscow to the city of Marseilles.” The soldier is captured, killed, and defaced. A monument to war is then built over his body “so that / The Unknown Soldier / In no circumstances stand up on Judgement Day / and unrecognisable / […] pointing his finger, expose us who can be recognised / To justice.” Chilling stuff. In Bresnick’s composition I like to think that the trio plays the role of the soldiers building the arch. Curro lays brick upon brick of slow, rising double-stops. Arkinstall plays a limping, persistent clarinet line. One begins to feel the weight of the growing arch in the dense piano chords. The piece is relentless, but so is war. Bresnick seems to give us a new manifesto for representing a grinding struggle: Simple words, repeated. But is this still enough?

Plexus have a knack of putting together balanced and varied programs and this concert was no exception with plenty of lighter pieces to offset Bresnick’s gravitas. You can almost taste popcorn in the soaring, filmic lines of Robert Davidson’s Lost in Light. A movement from Mary Finsterer’s “Julian Suite” dedicated to the human rights advocate and philanthropist Julian Burnside gave the audience space to reflect while the trees sighed in the wind outside the Cranlana ballroom. The audience was left in high spirits thanks to a hilarious performance of Jean Anouilh’s comedy L’Invitation au château, cleverly adapted and read by Helen Morse. Plexus played the incidental music with all of the good humour due to Poulenc, at times joining in the play itself. And so the audience stepped out of the château a little lighter of heart and pocket, having raised funds for other much-needed homes.

L’Invitation au château
Plexus with Helen Morse and Paul English
Launch Housing benefit concert
Cranlana
1 May 2016

Igor Stravinsky, L’Histoire du soldat; Robert Davidson, Lost in Light; Mary Finsterer, Julian Suite no. 1, movement 1: “Nobility”; Martin Bresnick, And I Always Thought; Francis Poulenc, L’Invitation au Château.

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood: Broken Consorts

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood perform Broken Consorts at the Baha'i Centre, Hobart. Photo courtesy of the ensemble.
Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood perform Broken Consorts at the Baha’i Centre, Hobart. Photo courtesy of the ensemble.

It is a truth commonly acknowledged that a fan of irrational rhythms, jarring dissonances and difference tones will also  enjoy the rasping timbres and wild gestures of baroque music. In Broken Consorts, Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood explore this subterranean passage between early and new music that passes under the full-to-bursting tone and metrical pomp of the romantic era. What explains the affinity between early and contemporary music? As the composer Damien Ricketson mused during the concert, the groups share “a mutual disregard for vibrato.” Performers of early music will retort that this description only applied in the early days of Historically Inspired Performance Practice and that today they know to use vibrato sparingly as an expressive effect. But neither adepts of early music nor contemporary music are known for their sense of humour.

In early music terminology, a “broken consort” is an ensemble constituted from more than one family of instruments. By playing contemporary and early music on early, modern and bespoke instruments,  Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood bring the notion of the broken consort into the twenty-first century. While some works in the programme were creative reimaginings of old and new works on old and new instruments, a new work by Felicity Wilcox was commissioned especially for the concert. While the reimagined early and modern works provided an engaging comparison of instrumental timbres, Wilcox’s piece went furthest towards a genuine exploration of new and early musics’ shared emphases on gesture and rhetoric.

The concert began with Matthew Locke’s Consort of Fower Parts, which Ironwood played in a historically-inspired fashion. This was the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing Ironwood perform, and I was blown away by Daniel Yeadon’s cello tone and rhetorical expressivity. From a purely early-music performance to a completely new work, Wilcox’s Uncovered Ground was a palimpsest of musical styles. The composer likens the piece to a “a chipped painted wall that partially reveals a forgotten mural.” The piece features begins with a descending figure reminiscent of the lamenting bass of a passacaglia or Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa. This baroque gesture is quickly replaced by modern extended techniques, including pianist Zubin Kanga playing inside the piano with a bottle. Other baroque forms can be made out beneath the whispering, scraping string sounds, including a decorative string duet and dance rhythms.

The episodic form of Matthew Locke’s Suite from The Tempest provided opportunities for creative instrumentation. Kanga’s piano was prepared to comical effect, with Blu-Tac on piano strings producing “popping” cadences. Paper in between the piano strings and bulldog clips on Claire Edwardes’ vibraphone brought the instruments closer to the brighter, buzzier baroque sound world. I was pleasantly surprised when the two ensembles stood for a spot of very convincing madrigaling.

Damien Ricketson’s Trace Elements was inspired by a sixteenth-century manuscript, the Cracow Lute Tablature. The manuscript includes musical forms that are unidentifiable within our current knowledge of sixteenth-century music. Ricketson was attracted to the idea of forgotten musical styles, as well as the fact that tablature describes the actions required for a piece to be played rather than how it sounds. Trace Elements is written in an invented tablature that can be performed by a quartet consisting of two wind and two string insturments. The performance will thus be different every time that a different combination of instruments and tunings are used. Due to the tablature, as Ricketson writes, “the underlying gestural identity remains constant.” The ensemble chose a compelling combination of modern flute and clarinet with early viola and cello. This produced startling effects as the undeniably “modern” gestures, using the full range of the instruments, were modulated by the gut strings of the string instruments.

The concert closed with Mary Finsterer’s Silva, which was composed in 2013 for Ensemble Offspring featuring Claire Edwardes on percussion. The title means “forest” and the piece reflects the eerie quiet of forest environments, with scattered fragments of Tallis’ “Spem in alium” and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” lighting up the space like birdsong. There were some wonderful timbral surprises, including a sumptuous combination of gut-stringed cello and modern bass clarinet. The tone of Veronique Serret’s modern-strung violin stuck out in the muted forest like an enthusiastic lyrebird. After each instrument was given some time to make itself heard, the piece closed with a beautifully rough gong chime evocative of a rusted bell in a forgotten temple.

Ricketson’s Trace Elements

Ensemble Offspring and Ironwood Ensemble

Broken Consorts

Fortyfivedownstairs

23 February 2013

Matthew Locke, Consort of Fower Parts; Felicity Wilcox, Uncovered Ground; Matthew Locke, Suite from The Tempest; Damien Ricketson, Trace Elements; William Lawes, Consort in Six Parts; Mary Finsterer, Silva.