CYBEC 21ST CENTURY AUSTRALIAN COMPOSERS CONCERT
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Saturday January 28
Not quite yesterday – in fact, almost a year ago. But the time has flown since the last Cybec Foundation concert in which four young composers heard their original creation performed by competent professionals. On Saturday, the process was repeated involving another quartet of fresh-faced enthusiastic creators introducing their scores with the by-now anticipated mixture of diffidence and brashness, information and burbling, jargon and deliberation – all set in motion by interviewer/conductor Brett Kelly who gave the composers a forum to engage with us verbally, then through their music.
As with last year’s field, this crop proved a mixed one. But that’s not saying much: from my experience, the Cybec events offer markedly differing tongues, even if the conversationalists are constrained to operate with the same array of sound-colours. This year, the available forces numbered 25 players – one each of the woodwind except for two clarinets, pairs of trumpets and horns with a trombone and tuba, pairs of strings with a solitary double bass, piano, harp and three percussion. And each participant enjoyed the services of a mentor to help shape the work; not that this assistance was at all obvious as the young composers all displayed an idiosyncratic voice, if their mastery of form presented as veering to the rudimentary.
Saturday night began with Sydney-based Cassie To’s The Reef, a series of sound pictures dealing with this country’s marine wonder and celebrating its current breadth and vitality with a lavishness that would have admirably supported an Attenborough wild-life special. The piece’s progress presented as a set of contrasting episodes, polemical brass-dominated passages set alongside smaller-framed paragraphs like the harp+flute+strings passage at the work’s conclusion that brought the first of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Sea to mind. Still, originality in the score’s harmonic structure proved difficult to find with an emphasis on diatonic straightforwardness amounting to insistence and, although flourishes and intimations of nature’s majesty abounded, individual touches in orchestration came around pretty infrequently. As a homage to the Great Barrier Reef, the work made the proper gestures and succeeded in suggesting the current structure’s majesty of scale as a whole alongside its fragility A pity To couldn’t confront us with a canvas projecting the mental bankruptcy of those who sponsor the Adani development which currently menaces the treasure that she has memorialised.
After this, Stephen de Filippo’s Static Anxiety moved into a different form of representation, psychological rather than geographical. The proposed stasis is represented by a sustained note that shifts between instruments and methods of articulation across the score’s span – an A, possibly? On top of this fulcrum, the Western Australian composer involves his players in tachisme, dollops of sound coming from all quarters in an instrumental web of considerable sophistication that demonstrates de Fliippo’s consciousness of the value and worth of each strand in the overall complex. This is music that is not so much up-to-date but of its time, packed with energy; very few young writers would be capable of depicting in such a sustained fashion the title’s intimations of mental fragility and nervousness operating above a sanity-inspiring ground.
Alongside this chameleonic continuum, Brisbane-based Connor D’Netto’s Singular Movement impressed for its inbuilt firmness of statement. The composer is comfortable in employing recognizable melodies that amplify themselves by slow accretion. This work’s central section involves a deft rhythmic moto perpetuo, first for strings, then for a wind/brass combination while a long, slow-moving arch emerges from the bass layers of the sonic mesh. D’Netto, for all this middle segment’s zappy energy, develops an argument with his material, albeit one that is deliberately limited in its breadth, and at the end its grinding power of motion and statement is reduced to a strangely affecting, inaudible pianissimo. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, the name that kept on suggesting itself was Roy Harris, that hard man of early American modernism who also favoured building sonorous blocks from simple material, although without D’Netto’s spiky jauntiness.
Last cab off this particular rank was Melbournian Abe Vincent’s The Secret Motion of Things which found its impetus in Francis Bacon’s 1627 utopian novel, New Atlantis. The composer is preoccupied with Bacon’s account of disinterested but benign scientific experimentation in his mythical settlement of Bensalem, and he proposes a musical exploration of what such progress entails for our times where each year brings about unpredictable developments and changes in our lives. So , while Vincent is treating tangible (scientific) intangibles (philosophy) – he’s not alone in that – he sensibly refrains from producing a frenziedly busy sound scape or a po-faced Hymn to Optimism. Yes, the core of the work is highly mobile, both racy and pacy, but what impresses is a deftness in handling orchestral timbres which in this case, given the small number of strings at work, remains disarmingly lucid, marrying mass timbre with individual dynamic masterfully. Mind you, the boom-bash unisons of the final pages seem theatrical and unnecessary, given the work’s emotional context, but perhaps the sense of definite accomplishment they propose to this listener would sound more convincing with greater forces involved.
The outcome of this event is the usual one: two of these scores will be performed during the MSO’s Metropolis series, at the concert on Saturday May 6 conducted by Brett Kelly in the Melbourne Recital Centre. Which of them merits this distinction is in the hands of an expert committee but I’d be surprised if Static Anxiety missed out on selection.