April 10 & 11, 2016
For a collaboration between the ACO and Sydney-based group Synergy Percussion, this program delivered some odd goods, founded a not-quite persuasive backdrop of music written for film. To be sure, Tognetti and his ACO played some genre-specific samples: a string orchestra suite constructed by Bernard Herrmann from his score to Hitchcock’s Psycho, some extracts arranged by Sydney composer Cyrus Meurant from Thomas Newman‘s aural backdrop to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.
But one of Monday night’s more outstanding passages of play had no celluloid connection, as far as I could tell. Voile for 20 strings by Xenakis served as a fine curtain-raiser to the evening’s miscellany-of-sorts, the ACO players confidently constructing some excellent sound-clusters, their disposition of pitches typified by fearless attack and an almost-nonchalant embrace of the sonic barrage that at times comes close to white noise. Further, the performers underlined the internal discipline of this score, notably the block chords alternating with ascending and descending close-interval sequences for small pairs and trios of executants. It made for a bracing overture, too much so for the Hollywood products that followed.
In fact, after the acerbic bite of Xenakis’ final chords in Voile, the signature brusque glissandi swipes that accompany Janet Leigh’s unforgettable shower scene in Psycho sounded pretty tame, not the visceral shocks of 50-plus years ago. Hermann’s collation is, by his own descriptor, a narrative where he outlines the film’s plot from Marion’s flight with the stolen money to the Bates hotel, her murder and the eventual psychological dysmorphism of Norman as his mother’s persona takes over. While the score itself, for strings alone, is a formidable construct as a reinforcement of the film’s action, this performance gave the ACO musicians no challenges although the ensemble captured persuasively the three major contrasts of atmosphere and attack that Herrmann used as mini-pillars for this reminiscence-evoking offshoot.
Newman’s soundtrack is reduced to three scenes in Meurant’s arrangement, all suggestive of the film’s action, or lack of it. Synergy members Timothy Constable, Joshua Hill and Bree van Reyk, along with Bobby Singh‘s tabla, gave a colourful complement to the ACO’s yet-again untroubled strings which invested a well-paced grace in Newman’s score, an oddly touching employment of simple motives intended to suggest the mundane lackadaisical nature of characters involved in psychological stresses behind well-to-do facades. While this version brought back vague impressions of the film’s emotional character, the visual complements remained amorphous in the memory – well, mine; here, more than at any other time in the concert, you needed either stills or clips to give focus to pages that could be used to illustrate many scenarios in many films.
Another Xenakis finished the program’s first half: Psappha for percussion alone. Here, the Synergists took to the 1975 score with determination, Hill given the scene-setting opening statement, van Reyk restricted to two timpani and bass drum while Constable enjoyed the most timbral variety. The composer’s requirements are simple enough: three groups of wood instruments, possibly another of skins, certainly another group of metal. Ostinati of an unreliable nature with regular and odd accents alternating recur throughout the work’s progress, the most arresting moments long, enervating silences before single, sudden bass drum strokes. What the work has to do with Sappho, a variant of whose name supplies the work’s title, remains a mystery; nothing to do with the poet’s verse, I’d guess, except possibly in the mathematics of its metrical construction which, without reference to specific texts or arithmetical metadata, preserves its mysteries.
As a central collaboration, both participating bodies ended their concert with Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta; the film connection here coming about through this work’s use in that arch-musical magpie Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and also in Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze’s fantasy of 1999. Just prior to this, Constable took centre-stage – and vibraphone? – for his own Cinemusica, a two-movement reflection on the evening’s content – well, some of it – with focal roles for his Synergy colleagues and Singh. As the composer intended, the work provides contrasts in emotional impact and colour variety. Not much remains in the memory some hours later, except a clear affinity with the film score language of Herrmann and Newman: amiable, undemanding, and, in this instance, deftly carried out.
For the Bartok, Neal Peres da Costa provided the celesta voice, Benjamin Martin the piano, Julie Raines on harp and an extra ten strings fleshed out the ACO for the double orchestra required with Synergy percussion making their marks through the required xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, timpani, tam-tam and cymbals. What we heard was a far cry from the usual glutinous mash, particularly in the fugue opening movement and the high-point to the Adagio. Taking its cue from the percussion writing, this reading worked towards a clear statement of material throughout, not just in the even-numbered dance movements. For the first time in my live experience of the piece, the antiphonal passages for strings succeeded splendidly, probably because both bodies were evenly split in executive skill, but also because of the integrity of the interpretation where each player slotted into the complex, particularly noticeable in the edgy upper strings; there are no passengers in this ensemble.
In fact, you could catalogue a whole range of specific pleasures to this reading, but the main headings would include the clean-limbed string lines, particularly in moments of maximum interweaving like the build-up in the first movement and the rich peroration that caps the finale; the welding of percussion into the fabric, notably Martin’s piano and van Reyk’s third movement pointillist xylophone; the luminous sound-world conjured up by celesta, harp and piano in the centre and at the end of the work’s central ‘night music’ pages; the whole body’s energetic control of Bartok’s hefty but ever-changing rhythms.
As a collaboration, they don’t come much better than this; the pity is, as others have observed, there’s precious little written for the strings and percussion combination. Even so, experiences like this open our ears to possibilities, as well as doing the inestimable service of scouring sentimental, vibrato-heavy dross from a vibrant, glittering 80-year-old masterpiece.