Offspring's birthday offering

Michael Hooper

To celebrate Bozidar Kos’ birthday, Ensemble Offspring presented a most interesting kind of composer portrait. Alongside several of Kos’ best known compositions were pieces by former students Matthew Bieniek and Damien Ricketson, as well as 2 world premieres: one by Kos and the other by Michael Finnissy. It was an event that clearly demonstrated the interconnectedness of all composers and underlined Kos’ continuing importance as composer and teacher.

The concert opened with Kos’ Catena 1. According to Rachel Campbell’s lucid program notes, the title means “chain, succession or series”, which Kos says “refers to the form of the work which consists of a closely connected series of segments.” This became a concept around which the entire concert was constructed, with each work further exploring different configurations of instruments and ideas.

In Catena 1 the metaphor of a chain or series is most audible in the instrumental combinations that are continually engaged in a succession of formations and dissolutions. The violin and cello are frequently paired, as are the clarinet and flute, and marimba and piano. When one instrument is virtuosically active, the others are relatively static. Large melodic arches juxtapose fragmented flurries. The result is a fascinating, if restrained, variation of material and colour.

Catena 2 explores similar ideas. Instrumental combinations are constantly reconfigured, though the average density of material remains unvaried. The work attempts a higher degree of counterpoint than Catena 1, however the long drones played by instruments awaiting their next solo became wearing. What might be considered utterly conventional in Kos’ earlier career as a jazz musician did not find such satisfying purpose in this piece. However, like jazz and folk traditions, these works reward good playing, and each musician was able to characterise their part.

Intersecting these 2 pieces was Ricketson’s Trace Elements. Taking its impetus from a collection of Renaissance lute music, the score is notated using tablature that provides the performers with directions about finger placements but not definite pitch. The subtitle, “four undefined genres for four unidentified instruments (two bowed strings and two winds)”, points to the enormous range of interpretations possible. For this performance, the chosen instruments were flute, clarinet, violin and cello.

What remained unclear throughout the performance was the degree to which interaction between parts was important. The players were situated in a straight line, allowing the audience a good look at what they were doing, but reducing the possibilities for in-the-moment reactions between them. As individual parts, there was a great deal to like about the music. Particularly impressive were Kathleen Gallagher (flute) and Geoffrey Gartner (cello), who both played with flair and virtuosity. Gallagher’s flexibility of sound was on show as she subtly varied the degree of breathiness and articulation, although it was not entirely clear why the tuning of the flute differed from that of the clarinet (Jason Noble). As a quartet, the music might have been more interesting had the performers been required to play without a conductor, heightening the cohesion of the voices. I look forward to hearing future performances of Trace Elements with less quotidian instrumentation and tuning.

The second half of the performance contained the evening’s 2 world premieres. Kos’ Fatamorgana was written in response to the death of his wife Milana. In this piece each instrument has a fairly distinct role. The violin (Sophie Cole) and cello remain in an accompanying position playing drones and slow glissandi. The piano (Katarina Kroslakova) and percussion (flawlessly played by Jeremy Barnett) comment on the material played by other instruments. Launched above this is an intricate interplay between the flute and clarinet (Diana Springford). These lines are detailed and intense, their shaping clear and decisive. Gallagher’s trills were quick and virile.

Finnissy’s Springtime was the night’s highlight. Formed in 2 sections, the first requires little coordination between parts. As is the style with these kinds of passages, much of the music consists of long unadorned lines. The second section relies on intense listening for both performer and audience. For the first time in the concert, textures were allowed to grow in density and some genuinely climactic moments ensued. Noble’s clarinet playing was effortless. The glissandi in the violin and cello, common to most of the evening’s works, had incredible life. The piece ended with slowly descending tremolo cello harmonics and fleeting jeté col legno battuto violin ascents.

What better birthday tribute for Bozidar Kos than good music played with flair and sensitivity.

Ensemble Offspring, Bozidar Kos: Celebrating 70 Years, works by Bozidar Kos, Damien Ricketson, Michael Finnissy, Matthew Bieniek; conductor Roland Peelman; Sydney Conservatorium, July 4

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 33

© Michael Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004