St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Richmond
Sunday April 3, 2016
Anyone looking at this concert program before the event would have felt overwhelmed: five composers, seven world premieres, eleven works in all ranging from solo piano pieces, through trios and string quartets, to a full-blown symphony. As things turned out, the overkill looked more threatening on paper than in actual performance even if, as you might have anticipated, the impact of certain works was less substantial than a few stand-out scores.
As conductor/host Andrew Wailes pointed out, the musicians who made up the afternoon’s personnel were of mixed abilities: some professionals, some advanced students, some amateurs or amiable musically competent friends. Further to this, several of the more difficult works suffered from that bugbear of projects that work on volunteers’ good-will almost exclusively: insufficient rehearsal. Counterbalancing those problems, quite a substantial number of the works presented made congenial listening, if often not offering much challenge to audience or performers. This easy-access aspect emerged pretty quickly with Kitty Xiao‘s Nimbus and Nipper for flute/alto flute, violin and piano where the amiable spirit of Australian post-impressionism loomed large. At certain points, when the instrumental mesh and harmonic changes were aligned, you also heard echoes of Franck’s chamber works – which is fair enough if your intention is to suggest a combination of aural imagery and weltering emotional activity. Xiao’s piano part took the limelight in both works for a while but she was more than adequately served by Cameron Jamieson‘s violin and the breathy flutes of Jessica Laird.
Hana Zreikat‘s first offering came in the form of a piano solo, Elan, which employed plenty of common chords in its stop-and-start progress. You could not find much of a contemporary edge to this composition, pleasing though it was but mainly distinguished by the addition of added notes for an occasional frisson of harmonic colour.
Three of the premieres followed in quick succession. Carol Dixon‘s Piano Trio No. 1, The Dove, made its points in one continuous movement with the best content falling to pianist Natasha Lin; her companions, violin Navin Gulavita and cello Sage Fuller, made an unhappy start with what at first impressed as poorly matched intonation, which then recovered, only to fall prey later to further dislocation. For a while, you could suspect that these tuning discrepancies might have been caused by Dixon’s adding tension to her harmonic constructs, but no: the unsettling effect came from the playing itself. Certainly the work followed the environment set up by both Xiao and Zreikat in being amiable in its melodic fluency, predictable through its rhythmic consistency and un-alarming in the actual demands on its interpreters.
By contrast, Sarah Elise Thomson‘s fresh String Quartet No. 1 showed attempts to grapple with post-Bartokian musical activity. Following the one-movement format, this piece showed an enthusiasm for activity, although at its centre lay a lengthy section featuring sustained-note interjections from the upper strings over a repeated pattern from Sage Fuller’s cello. Gulavita at second violin partnered Matthew Rigby on first and Georgia Stibbard‘s viola but, despite the activity, the performance proved to be some rehearsals removed from security.
Rigby proved a strong presence in the succeeding String Quartet No. 1 by Dixon. Subtitled No Stone Unturned, the score followed minor melodic paths for much of its length but showed little sense of parameter-expanding adventure, especially compared with its predecessor in this program. Acknowledging the influence of Ravel’s and Debussy’s essays in the form, Dixon imposed a fairly obvious structure of returning to and mildly developing her material with a penchant for the sorts of fluttery gestures found in both the French composers’ quartets, but you would need a very secure body of performers to give polish and interest to a pretty predictable piece like this one.
Benjamin Bates adopted the time-honoured three-movement framework for his Symphony No. 3, this program’s largest element in scale and number of participants. While the composer led the double basses in this presentation under Wailes’ direction, he based a fair bit of the symphony’s material on Spanish guitar-inflected melodic scraps, fairly obvious when Bates brought them to the front of the action, but not the most arresting features of the work when considered as an entity. The three movements ran into each other so that the second movement’s impressive solos for cor anglais and bass clarinet emerged organically from a tautly argued opening Allegro–Presto–Allegro continuum; later, the finale’s attempt at a fugue also emerged from the fabric without any warning.
Some woodwind pitching could have been more carefully managed, the flute pair sounding the most reliable performers from that cohort. You felt the absence of trumpets from the mix, if only to provide some brisker flavour to the exposed brace of horns, able though these players were. And confining percussionist Jessica Bird’s contributions to a side-drum removed another source of potential timbral input. Still, the score has an intriguing energy and a kind of Sibelian brusque lyricism at its best moments, as well as several patches of tedium where the argument loses impetus, as in the fugue which cries out for a tauter delivery than could be achieved with two rehearsals.
As a bracket to this major piece, the program moved back into chamber mode with music by Dixon, Zreikat, Thompson and Xiao. For her Soldiers’ Suite, Zreikat accompanied herself while singing three songs: Now I Find Myself Hoping which proved to be a simple pop-tune lyric of some length, in the manner of Adele at her most depressed; Somebody’s Waiting which followed a similar vein of predictability; finally, Enya’s May It Be from the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. All of which seemed to be an anomaly on this program where other contributors grappled with the art of composition without resorting to overuse of cliches and sentimental simplicity.
Dixon’s Ocean Oasis I for mixed trio – Laird, Jamieson, Xiao – generated more of the same impressionistic colouring as at the afternoon’s start, this time depicting Norfolk Island. Again, the piece raised no alarms and presented its atmospheric suggestions with expertise: perfect accompaniment for a documentary on the island’s beauties. Xiao’s Emei, reminiscing about a journey up a mountain in China, turned into a slow waltz, lushly scored with plenty of imitative work for Laird and Jamieson, Xiao’s piano generating an attractive underpinning shimmer in parts. This was just as suggestive of Ravel as the Dixon String Quartet No. 1, although this time what came to mind was the Ravel Piano Trio especially its final movement’s assertive figuration. In contrast Thompson’s Riven piano solo, played by Zreikat, showed an adventurous mind at work, what with hitting the piano wood, playing on the strings and occasionally indulging in washes of sustained, across-the-keyboard dissonance, counterbalancing an employment of lavishly arpeggiated common chords.
In the end, the many components of this program formed a kind of arch with smaller-framed constructs, some close to bagatelles, book-ending the central symphony. The composers themselves deserve praise for the actual physical exercise involved in collaborating to mount this concert and in attracting into service the various talents required: the Nimbus Trio of Laird, Jamieson, and Xiao; the Briar String Quartet of Rigby, Gulavita, Stibbard and Fuller; Zreikat lending her talents to Thompson; and the significant number of well-wishing musicians participating in the Bates symphony. It’s grass roots stuff and at times rough-edged, but this sort of ad hoc concerted willingness to give creative voices an airing bears witness to the reassuring fact that at least this particular Melbourne Composers corner of our city’s musical life enjoys good health.