Arcko challenges and cheers

MELBOURNE MADE

Arcko Symphonic

Church of All Nations, Carlton

Saturday March 19

Like a Maelstrom CD (arckosymphonicorchestra,bandcamp.com)

This concert offered a little bit of the old as well as the new – that’s if you could call anything on this program old.  Timothy Phillips and his symphonic ensemble specialize in challenging new music and yesterday had that in spades with the world premiere of Tim Dasrgaville’s Kolam, a return visit to Caerwen Martin’s X-Ray Baby (featured on the first Arcko CD), Ingressa of 2009 by Elliott Gyger, and Brendan Colbert’s . . . like a Maelstrom which is the title of the latest CD from these players, launched at this concert.

It’s been quite a few years (twenty?) since I last visited this church which has now become a community powerhouse – and it shows.  The interior last night had a few pews along the side walls while the central space was lined with individual, if not very comfortable, chairs.  The Arcko players worked from the front facade where the preacher’s gallery sits, on the same level as the audience which meant that, to see individuals at work, you had to crane; which the lady in front of me did throughout the evening, although she seemed indiscriminate in her viewing choices, contorting her body in the direction of players who were, at the time, static.

Still, she could do little to disrupt Tim Dargaville’s new work, taking its impetus from a Tamil religious practice.  The composer is making no attempt to absorb and discharge Indian musical influences: no Bollywood echoes, no resuscitated Ravi Shankar.  The recurring motif is a falling major 2nd, an upward leap of a 5th, then back to the original interval.   But for much of its length, the score is of interest for its textures; there is a melody for cello that eventually emerges, followed by another for horn, but one of the distinctive points of interest is a brisk section for winds alone prior to a fulminating climax.   As an example of management of forces, Kolam makes a positive impression but its philosophical underpinning  remains a mystery to this listener, even if the work’s format presents few problems.

Gyger’s work is based on a type of religious chant that emanates from the town of Benevento, a Campanian city near Naples.   Scored for wind and string quintets, piano, harp and two percussionists, this work is based on an entrance chant for Easter Sunday, a dialogue between Mary Magdalene and the angel at Christ’s tomb.   Using far more notes for a musical phrase than the more common Gregorian, this sample of Beneventan chant is angular, inclined to more abrupt intervallic leaps than you’d expect, and not averse to ending phrases mid-word.   You would need a score to trace the melody’s use in this piece, as the instrumental output is strikingly dense, but its climactic point, an Alleluia divided between strings, solo horn and tubular bells, is effectively jubilant, bringing to mind the more restrained outpouring in the final Taize-illustrating movement of the Laudes  octet by Nigel Butterley, on whose music Gyger is an authority.   Still, throughout this work’s progress, the percussionists have all the running, Amy Valent-Curtis and Peter Neville dominating the action with a wide-ranging battery of sound-sources.

Martin’s construct aims to suggest hospital sounds, beginning with rustlings and subdued suggestive wisps, eventually graduating to a very forceful climax.   Dedicated to the composer’s two daughters, the score has graphic elements based on her children’s scans and X-rays; like Gyger’s chant, constituents you can not easily assimilate from what you hear.   Given that the composer has clearly spent a good amount of time in medical institutions, her work succeeds in suggesting the mechanics of the hospital experience. Well,  you can pick out passages that strike you as suggestive; I heard sirens, nurse-doctor confrontations, the lapping of amniotic fluid, a loud labour, disputes in emergency.   Once the thesis is suggested, you can hear whatever you want to – or fear.  Despite Martin’s description of X-Ray Baby as abstract by nature, it takes very little effort to find musical illustrations of medical realities.

Colbert’s score owes its title to an Emily Dickinson poem of morbid imagery, even for that death-haunted poet.   It is a double concerto for trumpet and piano with emphasis on the latter which is not silent throughout the work’s half-hour length.  This was a remarkable tour de force from Peter Dumsday; getting the notes under his fingers an achievement in itself but maintaining stamina across an unforgivingly active part was a tribute to the performer and, on his part, to the composer.  By comparison, Bruno Siketa’s trumpet had things easy, not entering for some time, then kept restrained by being muted for the concerto’s outer segments.   Once again, percussion played a major role and the chamber orchestra strings, bowing away fiercely in the first five minutes, stayed close to inaudible for a good part of the action. To his credit, Colbert does not compromise, maintaining tension without much relief, the default expression marking being a determined forte, it seems.  At certain moments, the experience brought back memories of Cage’s 1958 Concert for Piano and Orchestra; not in its soundscape, because Colbert’s is through-composed, not left up to the musicians to choose their own paths, but for the massive onslaught of sound that coloured so much of its impact.

It’s an uncompromising voice, both enervating and exciting to hear in an age when contemporary composition is finding it difficult to sustain interest, let alone an audience.   In that regard, . . . like a Malestrom represents the sort of initiative for which the Arcko organization exists.  Whether or not it offers pleasure is irrelevant; what it does give you without holding anything back is a horizon-expanding experience, one where your ears are challenged to an aesthetic  confrontation.   At a new music concert, I can’t imagine anything better.

Happy 80th, Nigel

FROM SORROWING EARTH      ***

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank

October 31

This ambitious concert’s title refers to Nigel Butterley’s 1991 score, a kind of symphony in one movement which can be read as a lengthy meditation on the planet’s destruction or in even more concrete terms as an active threnody on environmental ruin, albeit a plaint where the listener is eventually offered some grounds for optimism.

Nigel Butterley (image: LinkedIn)

In fact, this night celebrated Butterley’s 80th birthday, which actually took place in May this year. Currently, the octogenarian is one of the few survivors of that optimistic period in Australian composition history when we attempted to catch up with the rest of the world after years of rehashing what passed for modern 50 years before.  Butterley’s Sydney-based contemporaries Richard Meale and Peter Sculthorpe  have left the scene, their direct descendant David Ahern preceding them by several years.

From that 1960s period of ferment, apart from Ross Edwards,  Butterley’s remaining peers seem to be Melbourne residents, notably George Dreyfus, seven years his senior, and Helen Gifford; both are still productive, if relics of an active era here that mirrored Sydney’s world and included George Tibbits, Felix Werder and Keith Humble. Agreed, the national musical history doesn’t start and end with these composers but their impact was considerable and more encouraged by the ABC and other concert-promoting bodies than seems to be the case today.  Certainly, their premieres were more keenly anticipated and more widely discussed than similar events in these piping times of benign indifference and undiscriminating tolerance.

Yesterday’s event, a partnership between Arcko Symphonic and ABC Classic FM, served a higher purpose than just recycling scraps from Butterley’s oeuvre.  Alongside an audition of In the Head the Fire, a still-gripping aural composite that won the 1966 Prix Italia, and the night’s-title symphony, the program saw the premiere of From Joyous Leaves, a freshly minted piano concerto by Elliott Gyger, this work taking its framework from Butterley’s 1981 piano solo, Uttering Joyous Leaves.

Zubin Kanga took us into this mesh gradually with an authoritative account of the short solo, idiosyncratic in its vocabulary but impressive for its bursts of deft spikiness; a complex construct but packed with devices and flourishes that document yet again the composer’s brilliant writing for keyboard. Later, in Gyger’s concerto, Kanga gave a gritty demonstration of unflinching insight, negotiating page after page of restless, demanding action.  After the score’s opening statement for three violas, the pianist entered the work’s scheme and remained a constant presence for a remarkably long time.

One of the concerto’s features is the use of a prepared piano, bringing up memories of Butterley’s own performances of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes.  The work moves with restless impetus and, using a chamber orchestra of woodwind sextet, brass quartet, two percussion with an often-near-inaudible celeste, and 13 strings, you are confronted with a succession of calculatedly juxtaposed colours, even from the piano which oscillates between normal sounds and the gamelan-like texture of the prepared strings.  A great deal is given to the listener in aural information and, before the tutti which disrupts the soloist’s urgent declamations, the concerto comes close to overload.

I’m not sure that simply playing the recorded performance of In the Head the Fire worked as a concert-going experience.  Yes, it was rewarding to hear the work in well-amplified conditions but these days most of us can achieve pretty much the same impact in our own homes.  Still, what else can you do with a work that was  recorded in different sites, its effect dependent on superimposed tracks and some sonic distortion?  Or perhaps it simply seemed out of place in the concert’s live performance context.

The symphony showed the extended Arcko forces in good form, director Timothy Phillips giving the work’s long paragraphs plenty of breadth.  For much of its length, From Sorrowing Earth moves forward steadily, but several agitated moments interrupt its measured progress; both wind and brass maintained an evenness and cohesion of ensemble that infused these livelier moments with real bite.   In the close acoustic of the Iwaki Auditorium, the general balance would have gained from greater string numbers, particularly both groups of violins which were liable to disappear in ardent full-orchestra pages.

Suggestive of the plainchant soaring over the last movement of Laudes, Butterley’s seminal octet and first major success which exposed many of us to his individual voice, the symphony eventually reaches a point of concord where the strife and stridency are replaced by block chords moving in parallel: a calm processional, an organum for the late 20th century.

For some of us, this would have been the first time we were hearing this striking and concentrated score live; the only recorded performance I can trace was made by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Isaiah Jackson in September 1992.  Its reappearance many years later, delivered with exemplary dedication by the Arcko players, must have pleased its creator.  For Butterley’s admirers, this all-too-short tour d’horizon served to reinforce our admiration and affection for a personable, ever-rewarding creative voice: a timely tribute to his intellectual integrity in furthering the development of Australia’s musical progress.