Tag Archives: Plexus

Plexus, Polyphony

Plexus are prodigious music collectors, racking up one of the, if not the, highest commission-counts of any contemporary music ensemble in Australia. Their Polyphony program at the Melbourne Recital Centre saw the trio inspire not one, but two choirs to join them in performing a program positively stuffed with new music by local and international composers. Already renowned soloists and chamber musicians, the substantial choral works bookending the concert showed Plexus to be consummate accompanists and collaborators as well.

Ed Frazier Davis sets moments from Shakespeare’s The Tempest against a sweeping cinematic background of swelling violin and rich piano harmonies for Melbourne’s adventurous Polyphonic Voices. Davis accents his tonal excesses with some effective and creative word painting, particularly in “Caliban’s Song” where swerving, choir-wide whistling beats in your ears. “A hum about mine ears” indeed.  “Ariel’s Song” includes some seriously grave intoning of “Full fathom five my father lies” with a sunken cathedral near by. “Stephano’s Song” transported the audience to 11pm on the last night of choir tour. These finely-crafted portraits left me wanting to hear more of this oratorio-Tempest.

A much younger choir provided a no less brilliant performance of Dermot Tutty’s sprawling moral tale Colours Bleed. The VCASS Choir here take the place of a chorus narrating a story that will be familiar to any gap-year voluntourist: The passage from righteous dismay at global inequalities to a realisation of the complexity of local circumstances and the often problematic role of foreign aid workers. In this work Tutty draws on his experience working with and composing for students at the ABCs and Rice school in Cambodia. I wish the whole work could sustain the energy of its dashing opening, but I was heartened that Tutty saved some of his most dissonant writing for moments of realisation, where heartfelt delusion is peeled back to reveal bitter reality. What to do next is the question, when righteous dismay burns on amid the knowledge of how hard it can be to make a difference, and I think Tutty can be excused for not resolving this question here.

Not wanting to forget Plexus, it should be mentioned that they also tossed off three instrumental world premieres. Sdraulig’s Evocations are my favourite of Sdraulig’s pieces. Delicate and detailed they are, as he writes in his program note, “incantations” with a ceremonial quality that Plexus achieves with extreme focus and coordination across the ensemble. There was something nicely detached in this music, like surveying a model city with its tiny figures painted in bold block colours.

Plexus are always good for a contrast and hearing Andrew Aronowicz’s pointillist Shattering Blooms after the Sdraulig was like hearing music history sped up. After Sdraulig’s masterful linearity it was nice to hear a new line, a wiser, more crooked line with holes and sudden 90-degree turns. Though impactful and savage, this piece didn’t have the depth of character I have come to love about Aronowicz’s writing. It seemed somehow processed through quotation marks. That said, I have never seen a performer so convinced of a young composer’s music as pianist Stefan Cassomenos in the final moments of Shattering Blooms.

From the beginning of Andrzej Karalow’s Through I was worried about the bar chimes. They stood there next to clarinettist Philip Arkinstall like a bad omen. If only people occasionally set up instruments that they never played. To me chimes mean terribly produced children’s music and creepy 80s ABC TV. Fortunately Through quickly develops a murky, sinister texture. It is impenetrably dark for a while, depicting (according to the composer’s note) the topography of physical land and metaphysical dimensions. Arkinstall’s bass clarinet maintains this sense of hushed, nocturnal focus. When the chimes are finally played in the third movement, they do contribute to the “coloristic kaleidoscope” including crotales resounding around the Salon.

Plexus never cease to please with their commitment to new music and deft turns of programming. The inclusion of choral works in this concert adds another few strands to their plexus of musical activities.

Plexus with The Polyphonic Voices and the VCASS Chamber Choir
Melbourne Recital Centre
10 August 2016

Ed Frazier Davis, Tempest Songs; Harry Sdraulig, Evocations; Andrew Aronowicz, Shattering Blooms; Andrzej Karalow, Through; Dermot Tutty, Colours Bleed

Plexus: L’Invitation au château

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
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.

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.