(Limelight Magazine)

Recent Reviews: August/September

(Journal)
Published – 07.09.2022
(Writing)

Scream Star (Speak Percussion) – Preview Performance
Arts House, North Melbourne
Reviewed on 17 August, 2022
4 Stars


It is a great privilege, infrequently afforded, to see a preview performance of a new piece of art. Anticipation and stakes are high, energy is coursing, and artists – waiting in the wings – are ready to leave it all out on the line to ensure the piece will work the following night at the opening. The great expectations and the equally great support from the small, lucky audience, buoy the night along – things may go wrong (I’ve been in preview audiences when props have broken, lines have been forgotten, the fourth wall dropped) but never mind, the show must go on. Nothing of the sort occurred at the preview performance of Speak Percussion’s newest offering Scream Star: a thrilling triptych of commissioned works for percussionists Eugene Ughetti, Kaylie Melville, and Hamish Upton. In fact, you could be forgiven – bar the extra-long interval for staged photos – for thinking the trio were old hats at the delectable, complicated repertoire on show. The 90-minute prog rock/fun fair/performance art hybrid was as slick as anything; closer to Sydney Theatre Company’s recent reimagining’s of A Picture of Dorian Gray and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde than your standard art music fare.

Across three bold, gestural works – Matthew Shlomowitz’s Hey Hey it’s Tuesday, Johannes Kriedler’s Welcome and Jessie Marino’s A Dream of Flight, or at least, lurching forward a few inches – our trio of performers were put through their paces, dancing, acting, communicating with one another with just a flick of an eyebrow, and playing a variety of instruments without a hint of exhaustion or overwhelm. This was no recital, this was a full-bodied production, at times deeply reverential and at others, totally original. Helping take the experience from sonically fantastical to visually brilliant was the exceptional lighting of designer Brownyn Pringle, who turned Arts House into a magical wonderland of colour. Sound engineer Alistair McLean should also be name-checked for his masterful and sensitive work across the orchestra of percussion, and complex additional soundscaping.

Now, the works themselves. Kicking things off was the technicolour whirlwind of Shlomowitz’s Hey Hey world. Billed as an “imaginary variety show”, Shlomowitz created a multi-sensory audience experience with the support of filmmaker Laura Spark, whose sometimes moving, sometimes hilarious snippets of archival footage, sketches, dance hall recordings and home movies turned the three performers in turn to backing artists, comedians of sound, foley artists and progressive rockers. The only problem with previews is the lack of uproarious laughter and applause that I’m certain will happen at every performance from opening. Shlomowitz’s variety show was one of generous humour, and greater capacity for technical brilliance from each of the three musicians.

Johannes Kreidler, a German composer known for his conceptual music and interest in multimedia, took an exciting, movement-heavy music-theatre look at language, spatiality, and animation. Using live and pre-created videos across a variety of screens and an on-stage camera, played by each performer as if it were another instrument, covered, as I scrawled in my notes, “everything from mathematics to poop jokes to evolution”. Space and time were mere playthings to Kreidler – canvases he cut apart and stitched back together, all the while demanding flexibility and choreography from its players. Pacey, intellectual, but deeply watchable, Welcome was just that – a welcome new work for the adventurous artist.

Then, after a pause, Marino’s A Dream of Flight, or at least, lurching forward a few inches lurched us a few inches calmer; a dreamy soundscape on a kaleidoscope of colour. Our trio became dancers, moving through simple but effective rhythmic choreography, dancing with each other, alone, and then while moving screens around. Less pacey than the other two works, Marino offered something different, something a little cooler. We moved with the ringing of the cymbals, breathing slowing. Marino’s world building was in turn unsettling and poetic; visually arresting perhaps more than sonically so. The work did, however, require a great elegance and trust from the performers, which each delivered with aplomb.

Scream Star is many things: absurd and funny, moving and creative, precise and demanding. It is, in short, seriously good music making. It is performance art and theatre, and new music making at its finest. Speak Percussion has, for over twenty years, continued to lead the way: pushing boundaries, experimenting, but never delivering anything less than virtuosic. Rush to see Scream Star, and then rush again to see whatever Speak does next; like or loathe ‘new music’, I guarantee you’ll find something to love about these artists’ athleticism, humour, and flair. A challenge, perhaps: if you don’t know much music like this, but you’re the type of art lover to rush out to the latest production at Malthouse or the Substation, make room in your diary for Scream Star. You won’t be disappointed.

Zubin Mehta conducts Richard Strauss (Australian World Orchestra)
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
Reviewed on 31 August, 2022
5 Stars


A live performance of any kind lives or dies on its energy. It matters, in many ways, less about whatis being performed. A subdued audience can mean the difference between a knock-out and a slump. A mid-season lull can change what a piece says entirely. Energy, on stage and off, is everything. And energy was the first thing I noticed about this performance – the foyer was, clichéd as it sounds, abuzz. High school students and their teachers mingled amongst groups of professional musicians and arts administrators. Well-known faces were everywhere. Recent university grads gathered in circles to pour over the program. It was as if the Australian World Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Zubin Mehta were top-billed rockstars. As we took our seats, the audience was radiant with excitement. I peered around; here was a packed crowd, almost falling out of their seats in anticipation of Richard Strauss’s orchestral tone poems. What a gift this ensemble is, I thought, to give us such a sense of expectation mid-week in a Melbourne winter.

An announcement over the speakers introduced the orchestra, and then out they came – wild applause accompanying the artists to their seats. It felt electric: these individually extraordinary musicians receiving the reverence usually saved for football stars or pop singers. They beamed at us, we beamed at them. It is a deeply special thing that this ensemble delivers to Australian audiences: the music, of course, but more than that, it’s a reminder of how exceptional our artists are and how important it is to celebrate homegrown music-making. It is a reminder to be grateful when we visit our state symphonies, and to welcome back Australian artists when they return from overseas. After Covid, it feels even more poignant.

The audience erupted once again as Mehta arrives. He walks cautiously now, after so many years of dedicated service. Here is a man who holds over half a century of music inside him. He sits to conduct, and yet he loses none of his elegance. Mehta began quickly, no score in front of him – the music of Richard Strauss so embedded in his bones. Known for his Strauss interpretations, Mehta is fluent in this operatic symphonic language. His Don Juanopening was charged, channelling that electric anticipation emanating in the hall. The maestro’s movements are smaller now than they once were, but his presence is commanding, his musicality as strong as ever. The story – familiar to opera lovers – about a man in search of the ideal woman, who ultimately succumbs to despair and melancholy, was exquisitely drawn here. It was aided by an exceptional oboe solo acting as the meeting between Don Juan and his love, and a knock-your-socks-off horn section that interrupted their special meeting.

Another tale of misadventure followed: Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche(Till Eulenspeigel’s Merry Pranks). The two themes – first, in the horn, then in the clarinet, were shaped with clarity and humour, and the pranks that followed only became more joyful and fun; that is, until it all goes wrong for Till Eulenspeigel. He is caught, a funeral march plays, he is killed. The music – reverent, but not without a tiny hint of a happy ending – was played with such compassion by these world-class musicians. Maestro Mehta led with gravity.

After interval, the operatic hero’s journey: Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Across six movements, the composer quotes himself, creating a work that is broadly thought to be autobiographical. It is heroic (“it does have lots of horns”, Strauss wrote) and unrelenting; virtuosic and moving, with plenty of great solos for the concertmaster. The fifty-minute work had everything: power, fragility, expression, story, and it was over in a blink of an eye. The audience was thunderous. Tears were being wiped away around me, the orchestra itself was full of smiling faces. The work itself is complex and marathonic; a mountain easily scaled by these musicians and Mehta.

The power of the Australian World Orchestra is not found in the repertoire choices, nor (though of course, it doesn’t hurt) the world-class conductors that join the ensemble year on year. The power is the players; leaders in their respective orchestras, in their instruments across the world and at home, coming together in reunion to do what they each do best. There is power in the sense of homecoming, and in the deep sense of lineage. I have been going to see the AWO for years now, and it never stops being a joy seeing famous faces, new faces, and the faces of friends up on that stage. Long, long may it last.

Ex Machina (Omega Ensemble)
Melbourne Recital Centre
Reviewed on 22 September, 2022
4 Stars


The improbable appearance of a saviour during a time of great need dates back to ancient Greek and Roman drama; ‘deus ex machina’ translating to ‘god from the machine’, referring both to the artificiality of the god’s ability to fix a situation, and the dramatic device itself in a theatrical setting. That idea of resolution – or, perhaps, in this instance, the unpicking of a purposefully-created compositional ‘problem’ – has always been part of music creating and interpretation. How do composers create their own dramatic crises, and how, in turn, do they choose to tackle it? Perhaps they don’t, leaving their work as an exploration of mounting drama. Alternatively, they may choose to create a piece that follows the usual storytelling formula – exposition, calamity, resolution. The thread amongst the works curated by Omega Ensemble in its national tour, Ex Machina, was the complexity. Across six works, many several receiving their world premiere, that complication was treated differently, but the ambition at the heart of each work became the tangible fibre connecting each vastly different sound world.

In an intensely focussed 90-minute recital, the core members of the ensemble hopped from the electrically rhythmic to the joyfully absurd in a program that lent heavily on the 21st-century American contemporary aesthetic. Bryce Dessner’s Aheymfor string quartet was an inspired opener – densely packed with rhythmic punch, and requiring deep concentration from the four musicians, Alexandra Osborne, Peter Clarke, Neil Thompson and Paul Stender (joined later in the program by David Rowden). Assisted (or hindered) by click track, some of the more emotional elements of the work failed to translate, but the drive and concentration was second-to-none.

Its pairing next to Missy Mazzoli’s moving Harp and Altar, commissioned (like Aheym) by the Kronos Quartet, was beautifully considered; Mazzoli’s generous and richly-scored work provided a balm after the intensity of the Dessner. Scored for string quartet and electronics, Harp and Alter was played with reverence by the quartet, perfectly suited to the intimate acoustics of the Primrose Potter Salon. The audience swam luxuriously in the at-times haunting, at other times frantic sound world; the musicians weaving delicately with the pre-recorded vocals. Described as a “love song to the Brooklyn Bridge,” Harp and Altarwas just that: reverent without overwhelm, and performed with divine humility.

Two world premieres followed on the program; quite the feat for one performance, and from two acclaimed international composers, Christopher Cerrone and Nico Muhly, interspersed with a work by the exciting emerging talent, Alex Turley. Cerrone’s Nervous Systems, a three-movement study of the architecture of rhythm, was a masterclass in focus; of stoicism in performance. The work featured some very interesting structural composition, and exciting textural doubling between the violin and clarinet, but seemed to occasionally need greater control of tone-matching to be truly successful.

Turley’s Zero Sum Game,commissioned by Omega Ensemble as part of its impressive CoLAB: Composer Accelerator Program in 2020, started boldly and virtuosically, blossoming into an exciting aural landscape. The “game” appeared to be the musical ideas being tossed from one musician to the next and back again, alternately driving and luxuriating; the young composer taking the compositional corners with ease. Perhaps some of the pacing could have been tightened for a more cohesive experience, but the final passages were as thrilling as the opening, leading nicely into the expected centrepiece of the evening, Muhly’s Measured to Fit. It was in turn playful and uneasy, jumping somewhat chaotically from idea to idea; a patchwork quilt stitched together with periods of unison. Sometimes, this pandemonium felt exciting, the musicians simply dancing between ideas, but at others, it left a slightly sea-sick feeling; the audience never quiteable to catch their footing. Reading the program note after the fact reveals the reason: the piece was, in fact, stitched together a bar at a time: “individual donors contributed to the piece [literally] measure-by-measure,” ultimately resulting in a strange but interesting experience.

Completing the night of (mostly) American music was Aaron Copland’s idiosyncratic and exhilarating Sextet (after Short Symphony), a complex and beautiful work, requiring great studiousness of its brave musicians, but also a great sense of humour and playfulness. The Omega Ensemble, well-equipped for all of the piece’s challenges and potholes, played it thoroughly and lovingly, giving the exciting but not-heard-often-enough Sextetthe room it deserves. Ex Machina was, in all, an incredibly satisfying listen; dense, but good-natured, and fondly curated by an intelligent and forward-thinking ensemble.

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