The next move?

Michael Hooper

Marshall McGuire has been appointed as The Seymour Group’s new artistic director, and on July 23 the ensemble performed a repertoire representing past, present and future directions. As one might expect from a group with over 27 years of history, the performance incorporated a diverse range of styles.

The majority of the concert lingered in the past with works by Pierre Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle, Barry Conyngham, Eliot Carter, and Michael Smetanin—the kind of repertoire I would have expected from The Seymour Group in the mid-1980s. One of Luciano Berio’s final compositions, Cello Sequenza, represented the present, while the future rested squarely on the shoulders of Cyrus Meurant with the premiere of Transience. Assuming that The Seymour Group is not dedicated to retrospectives, what remained unclear was the direction in which McGuire might take the ensemble. Though the switch from the group’s recent collaborative projects might suggest one path.

Boulez’s Dérive 1 made a splendid opening to the concert. The difficulties of producing a warm, vibrant sound with perfect dynamic balance were easily accounted for. The result was beautiful, calm and urbane. Guest conductor Simon Hewett (best known for his work with Brisbane’s Elision) proved a great asset in achieving this end. I hope that his clear and careful manner will be utilised by an increasing number of Sydney’s new music ensembles.

Unfortunately, the juxtaposition with the second work on the program, Birtwistle’s Tombeau in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, was jarring. This is a small work of only a few minutes’ duration written in 1971 and scored for flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet. Its inclusion in this program seems to have been based on the fact that it fitted the available players rather than artistic criteria. Nonetheless it was well performed, its simple repeated-verse structure recalling Stravinsky’s own penchant for repetition.

Like Boulez, Barry Conyngham is a composer who understands combinations of colour. Streams, for flute (Christine Draeger), viola (Benedict Hames) and harp (Marshall McGuire), treats the voices as a single multi-faceted unit, with gestures moving fluidly between the players. But this is also a work of contrasts. Gorgeously clear harmonics juxtapose harsh articulations. Legato lines are interrupted by a violently rattling harp. The writing for harp is particularly subtle with some notes quietly inflected koto-style and pedal positions altered mid-resonance. All 3 performers were in fine form; guest artist Hames will be missed with his impending departure for Germany.

The highlight of the concert was Carter’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux, written for Boulez’s 60th birthday and representing the music of North America. This is a wonderful piece dramatically performed by Draeger and Margery Smith (clarinet). Each instrument had a distinct personality, enabling a real dialogue between flute and clarinet. The speech metaphor is not entirely extraneous considering the composition’s attention to different types of breath: rude (rough) and doux (smooth).

For the Australian première of Berio’s Sequenza XIV for solo cello and as a homage to the composer, the cellist Adrian Wallis was backed with green, white and red. For a composer so concerned with the folk traditions of his homeland it was a nice idea, though it obscured the lower half of the instrument, which meant, sadly, that the visual aspect of this exciting performance was lost. The opening gestures are performed without the bow, the left hand activating the strings, and the right hand intricately striking the body of the instrument. Like the best of Berio’s sequenzas, the separation of hands immediately revealed the noisiness of cello technique. Thankfully, Wallis embodies the noisier of the 2 traditions. This is a thoroughly eccentric composition—one moment percussive, the next lyrical.

Meurant’s Transience was the evening’s sole new work and, like the pieces earlier in the night, was interesting for its application of colour. However, in 20 years time I doubt Transience will be regarded as the composer’s finest work. The same could be said of the following piece, Smetanin’s Lichtpunt.

In his closing remarks Marshall McGuire hinted at some exciting projects for next year. Hopefully these will come to fruition, especially if it helps attract a younger audience for the ensemble.

The Seymour Group, conductor Marshall McGuire, guest conductor Simon Hewett; Sydney Conservatorium of Music, July 23

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 48

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

1 October 2004