music that needs to be seen

chris reid: soundstream adelaide new music festival

Perspective, Soundstream: Adelaide New Music Festival, Dave Palmer

Perspective, Soundstream: Adelaide New Music Festival, Dave Palmer

Perspective, Soundstream: Adelaide New Music Festival, Dave Palmer


In a program note, Russian composer Gubaidulina states that “the trombonist stands for a Russian archetype, the holy fool or yurodivy.” The yurodivy “plays the fool, while actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice.” The clown flirts with the audience—the people—to gain their favour as he attempts to disrupt the saxophonists.

Gubaidulina’s Transformation (2003) is a theatrical composition whose message has universal significance. Unable to suppress the formidable saxophonists, the clown sits dejectedly to remove his makeup while a cellist and a double-bassist take up the musical line. Trombonist Dave Palmer is splendid as the clown who ultimately joins the sax and string ensemble, abandoning his outsider identity by covering his costume and performing from the same score as the others who now accommodate him, developing a canon form to indicate the echoing of new ideas. The work ends with the solitary beat of a tam-tam by a performer-witness in a red shawl who has sat silently by throughout, patiently awaiting her moment, signalling a beginning rather than an end.

Adelaide is a city of many festivals, but until recently hasn’t had a dedicated new music event. The excellent program for this, the second Adelaide New Music Festival, spans a century of composition, attracting good audiences with outstanding performances. In opening the ANMF, former Adelaide Festival of Arts director and ANMF patron Anthony Steel noted how difficult it is to get audiences outside of the comfort zone of the Adelaide Festival.

ANMF Artistic Director Gabriella Smart’s theme for this ANMF is the sacred and profane, and a central character is the clown or fool, who also appears in the closing concert at Coriole Vineyards on the Saturday afternoon.

At St Peter’s Cathedral, Transformation was preceded by a performance for cello, choir, celeste and percussion of Gubaidulina’s Sonnengesang (Canticle of the Sun, 1997), which sets a text by St Francis of Assisi, pays homage to revered Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and attests Gubaidulina’s own faith. In this fabulous work, the choir acts as the orchestra for what is in effect a cello concerto as well as a canticle, and stands in for parishioners. The percussionists rub the moistened rims of glasses that represent chalices, creating a whining sound that blends with the cello and soprano voices to create an ethereal effect. Tubular bells evoke the sound of church bells. Later, the cellist puts down his instrument and walks about the choir as he plays a flexatone with a bow, eliciting a responsory as part of the canticle and thus directing the choir, before returning to the cello to bring the work to its climax.

Sonnengesang is thus based on two distinct musical forms, actively linked by the cellist, and on sacred and profane traditions. Gubaidulina asks much of the soloists in her work, as musical performance is extended into dramatic performance with detailed stage directions. Netherlands-based Australian cellist John Addison, a Gubaidulina specialist, gave a spellbinding account of this complex and demanding piece, and the Adelaide Chamber singers under Carl Crossin were magnificent.

On the second night, Adelaide’s Zephyr Quartet gave a recital exploring Jewish musical traditions, including Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov’s breathtaking Yiddishbbuk, Inscriptions for String Quartet (1992), a reconstruction of music to accompany a set of apocryphal Jewish psalms. The work unfolds as a series of dramatic gestures, with notes held long like screams, and moves on to fragmentary tunes that are frighteningly abbreviated. Also included were Adelaide composer Quentin Grant’s Klezmer Variations and Melisande Wright’s suite Lighter Shades of Pale, both of which foregrounded the unique Klezmer tradition with its seductive, danceable rhythms.

Melbourne’s Anthony Pateras and Robin Fox are internationally renowned but had never before performed in Adelaide. The third night was theirs, Pateras giving a mesmerising performance on prepared piano and Fox a wondrous rendition of his laser and sound show. They formed a dynamic duo to conclude with several short pieces for synthesisers, laptop and Pateras’ sampled voice, with Pateras manipulating the synthesiser as frantically as he had the piano.

On the Saturday there were morning and afternoon concerts in the Barrel Room at the delightful Coriole Vineyards, with a sumptuous lunch in between. The morning session comprised five exquisite short works by Australian and international composers: Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes (1998) for solo violin (James Cuddeford), Tan Dun’s 1989 intensely introspective Traces for solo piano (Gabriella Smart), Adelaide composer David Harris’s Chinook (2009) for a trio of clarinet (Peter Handsworth), cello (Addison) and piano (Smart), Brett Dean’s Demons (2004, Geoffrey Collins, flute) and finally Hannah Kulenty’s A Fourth Circle (1994) for cello (Addison) and piano (Smart). Harris’s recent work is described as “expressive post-romanticism”, and in Chinook (one meaning of the term is ‘a warming wind’), he adroitly weaves tonal and chromatic lines and contrasting rhythms into a passionate and satisfying composition, highly resolved but with a delicious hint of uncertainty, like a complex rhetorical question. Kulenty’s is a stunning piece, emotionally overwhelming and brilliantly executed. Following a long piano passage like a tolling bell, the cello begins a series of questioning phrases that become incessant, using short, microtonally notated glissandi, crying imploringly—why? why? why? An intense crescendo is then slowly relaxed, with the glissandi curling downward. I was speechless for some time afterwards, so affecting were the writing and the performance.

In the afternoon was a single work, Schoenberg’s classic Pierrot Lunaire of 1912, which, though it is the earliest work in the festival, seems to draw together the threads of the previous four concerts—it was Schoenberg who championed chromaticism; it features the clown who is alienated from society and it speaks of tragedy and loss. Schoenberg set 21 poems to music, to be delivered using sprechgesang, a form of declamatory speech-like singing, in which the reciter slides into and out of notes. Greta Bradman’s performance as Pierrot was outstanding, and she was ably supported by a wonderful ensemble of Smart, Cuddeford, Addison, Collins and Handsworth under the firm direction of Pierrot expert Charles Bodman Rae.

This ANMF comprised an exemplary program of local and overseas works that reflect music’s recent development, thoughtfully curated by the indefatigable Gabriella Smart. Audiences benefited from detailed program notes, gaining a much expanded musical awareness. Especially, we heard music that also needs to be seen, recognising that the playing of an instrument is the enactment of a theatrical role.

Soundstream Adelaide New Music Festival, artistic director Gabriella Smart, Adelaide, Aug 19-22

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 49

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

8 October 2009