A pyrrhic revolt

Matthew Lorenzon: Latitude: Perspectives, WA Symphony Orchestra

Contemporary composers often attract the language of cartography, if not conflict, as they chart, navigate and territorialise a shifting landscape of styles. As part of the Latitude and Totally Huge New Music Festivals, The West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s Perspectives program (to be followed by the Frontiers program on Saturday), surveyed some of the less radical—though certainly current—trends in contemporary classical composition.

It is sometimes gratifying to hear composers pull back from the furthest reaches of musical invention because they return with the wisdom of their journeys into the unknown. In Close to the Edge, Roger Smalley paints a post-impressionist seaside landscape with pianissimo warbling clarinets, swelling orchestral textures and playful tutti rhythms. Washes of orchestral colour depict the horizontality of horizons, shorelines and stretches of flotsam in this study of timbral balance and development.

The Latitude concert afforded the rare opportunity to hear a master of classical minimalism reinterpret one of today’s most influential rock bands. Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite is a ‘cover’ of Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling into Place” and “Everything in its Right Place.” Reich disassembles and reconstructs the harmonies and melodies of the songs into movements of fast, leaping woodwind melodies, slow, lyrical string vocalises and rushing, racing scales.

Twenty-one year-old composer Jared Yapp introduced the world première of his concerto for viola and orchestra, The Ecstatic. A red screen glowed below the aqua, silver and mauve art deco interior of the Astor Theatre. Violist Giovanni Pasini dug into the epic portamenti and guitaristic fingertapping of Yapp’s piece like a stadium rock god. The composer contrasts the rock-and-roll sublime with flatter, more ritualistic textures that turned Pasini from a god into a sacrifice.

David Sawers’ The Greatest Happiness Principle is based on the ideas of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, including his infamous “panopticon,” a prison design in which all the inmates could be surveyed without being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. After comical episodes of mechanical rhythmic displacements, call and response and creeping pizzicati, the orchestra breaks out of the conductor’s control, playing various instrumental effects such as double bass glissandi described by conductor Paul Daniel as “the worst stomach ache in the world.” If the orchestra’s timid toots and scrapings were their idea of the people’s revolt then Bentham may rest peacefully in his grave. It would be great to see WASO look further into the repertoire for “orchestra gone wild.”

18 August 2013