Mountain in concert

Steve Dow

Onscreen, bleeding, dark red fingers in close-up. A man, suspended by ropes from a vertiginous cliff face, cries aloud he wants to go home. Onstage, Australian Chamber Orchestra violins and cellos briskly build from a Vivaldi concerto and segue via The Four Seasons’ “Winter” into the striking ebullience of “Summer.” Then presto, in both the fast musical and magical senses: Mountain, a melding of live performance and cinema without interval has this audience member briefly shielding his eyes when the high-altitude footage and sublime sounds drive home a dash of vertigo.

First performed in Australia at the Sydney Opera House this year during the city’s winter Vivid festival, Mountain combines the compositions by the orchestra’s artistic director, Richard Tognetti, with works from Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as contemporary pieces by Estonian Arvo Pärt and Peter Sculthorpe. These have been specifically assembled to enhance an array of extraordinary footage of mountains from around the world. Directed by Jennifer Peedom of Sherpa (2015) fame, with Renan Ozturk as principal photographer, Mountain is itself enjoying commercial life in cinemas, with an ACO soundtrack.

The concert version has the added benefits of staging director Nigel Jamieson’s oversight, Damien Cooper’s lighting design subtly attuned to the work’s fluctuating moods, from majestic through mournful, and the immediacy of live playing in a sonically superior venue, amid the blond wood panels of the City Recital Hall. Close-ups of oozing, bright red lava flows are made that much more visually arresting thanks to to floor lighting from beneath the musicians and Tognetti’s own mountainous shadow playing his violin, rising above the screen.

In an era when the language of cinema captures the popular imagination more than the difficult but arguably equally rewarding language of classical composition, it might be asked whether the listening experience itself suffers in projects like this. Certainly, the cross-pollination of art forms creates, as Tognetti told me on the phone recently, a “synergistic synaesthesia,” in which audience members may hear more with their eyes and see more with their ears.

But are we still paying conscious attention to the call and response within the orchestra, the lines of auditory inspiration, when our eyes are so busy drinking in daredevils launching themselves off clifftops on bicycles and skis? On the other hand, can we afford not to be experimental, given aging audiences? Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys consistently show that people in the first decade of retirement are twice as likely to attend a classical concert in a year than 18 to 24-year-olds.

This is “a new art form that hasn’t been over-explored,” says Tognetti: live bespoke film edited to accompany a performance, which should be differentiated from an orchestra cashing in on popular movies by recreating pre-existing soundtracks. These sorts of multi-sensory experiences, anecdotally, do attract more diverse audiences than older, traditional concertgoers, but whether curious newcomers will stay on to join the ranks of the ACO’s subscriber base of 10,000 steady and loyal regulars is yet to be seen.

A mixing of audiences was most apparent during the ACO’s live performance of The Reef, set to a filmed backdrop and seen by more 12,500 people in nine concerts around the nation in 2012-13, and restaged in March this year at London’s Barbican. Surfers with sun-bleached hair were scattered among paler audience members.

Mountain, image Jen Peedom

Onstage, string bows were gently drawn across crystal drinking glasses partially filled with water to create exquisite sounds, while on a huge screen behind the musicians, a man on his surfboard glided through a wave barrel in slow motion, a close-up lingering on his ecstatic face. The performance segued from the avant-garde of George Crumb to Brisbane-born composer Brett Dean’s Peripeteia, building to a frenetic Shostakovich chamber symphony. Simultaneously, the sensuous video work of Tognetti’s erstwhile surfing buddy, the London-born, Sydney-raised ocean photographer Jon Frank, projected the lip of a wave kissing its trough. The audience was plunged into a musical and visual consummation.

Tognetti is wary of competition on stage that can “nullify certain senses,” and concedes the ACO was less successful with its 2013 concerts of The Crowd, with music played to footage of people in urban spaces and audience responses to the experience ranging from “incredibly distracting” to “totally immersive.” It’s excellent that the ACO is listening, although The Reef didn’t set out to attract a surfing audience, any more than Mountain has a mountaineer demographic in its sights. “There would have been, of course, some classical music lovers who thought it might have distracted from the pure musical experience,” says Tognetti, “but it’s not like they don’t have enough opportunities for pure musical experiences. And so, don’t buy a ticket — or, no, please buy a ticket, but keep your eyes closed.”

For the most part, I couldn’t keep my eyes closed during Mountain. I then went home and streamed the Vivaldi pieces running in my mind’s loop as earworm. Mission accomplished: sight and sound enhanced each other, even if the experience was greatly different from the singular auditory fidelity that concentrated my mind on, say, the works in the ACO’s recent and more boutique Mozart concert.

There was one irritating and distracting aspect of Mountain, however: pre-recorded narration by US actor Willem Dafoe, which may be a useful feature in the commercial release of the film, though with its paternalistic Disney overtone, I’d doubt it. Not only bobbing up between movements but during the playing of the music as well, Dafoe’s sermons about the mightiness of mountains proved redundant and distracting.

I wondered, when speaking to Tognetti, whether concert newcomers attracted by cinema might feel at all intimidated by traditional classical audience deportment. I didn’t hear any clapping between movements during Mountain, but a few surfers may have applauded at such moments during The Reef. “Clapping doesn’t worry me at all between movements, and it’s encouraged in The Reef and hopefully Mountain,” says the maestro. “Go for it!”

Mountain, a cinematic and musical odyssey, writer, director, producer Jennifer Peedom, musical director, composer Richard Tognetti, principal cinematographer Renan Ozturk, staging director Nigel Jamieson, lighting design Damien Cooper; City Recital Hall, Sydney, 12, 15, 16 Aug; Sydney Opera House, 20 Aug

Interested in the connections between art forms and sometimes puzzled by the understatement of the importance of arts in Australian life, Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based writer across visual arts, stage, screen and music, who also contributes to The Saturday Paper, Guardian Australia, The Australian Financial Review, Art Guide Australia, The Monthly and Limelight magazine.

Top image credit: Mountain, Australian Chamber Orchestra, photo Maria Boyadgis

16 August 2017