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12 June 2009

Arcko Symphonic Project - Pulling Strings

Melbourne // VIC // 30.05.2009

David Chisholm, Tim Dargaville and Brendan Colbert Image: David Chisholm, Tim Dargaville and Brendan Colbert  

A relative newcomer to Melbourne’s contemporary music scene, the Arkco Symphonic Project is dedicated not only to the development and performance of new work, but to the rediscovery and re-evaluation of older Australian music, both established and neglected. Conducted by Timothy Phillips, they presented a program of works for small string orchestra that juxtaposed three recent compositions by Melbourne-based composers with Nigel Butterley’s Canticle of David from the late 1950s. The works were interspersed with demonstrations of James Hullick’s curious 'Gothiolin' that served as interludes (more of which later).

The opening work, David Chisholm’s Jonestown Threnody (2008) for seven strings, was composed in response to Stanley Nelson’s 2006 documentary which commemorates the 30-year anniversary of the Jonestown massacre. The intensity of the opening gesture was apt in regard to the subject matter, as was the violently atonal language and chaotically busy textures. Unfortunately this initial intensity dissipated too quickly, with the following sections essaying a more sorrowful emotional range without ever really achieving a sense of deep lamentation. The sequencing of events did not sit comfortably in the musical narrative structure – the work actually seemed too brief, and the ending unsatisfyingly abrupt.

Reservations aside, the work was initially conceived as a dance piece, and the collaborative visual and kinetic aspects of the work may provide cohesion that seemed missing in this purely musical performance. The work’s reception was also unfortunately eclipsed by the intrusive opening of the first Gothiolin interlude.

The translation from theatre to concert hall also proved to be slightly problematic in Tim Dargaville’s Dinner Dances (2004-09) for 13 strings. Originally cast as instrumental music for Moira Buffini’s play Dinner, these six brief dances are intended as a kind of psychological background music, unobtrusively familiar but with dark undercurrents that reflect the stage drama. Sharing the same thematic material, they are driven by lower string ostinatithe palm court and tango are never far away. Short asymmetrical motifs interlock, in an early 20th-century modal language reminiscent of Stravinsky or Bartók. There were also echoes of John Adams in the fourth dance, where there is momentary relief from the ostinati in the form of more expansive string textures. The final dance also provides contrast but seems to lack the intensity to make for a convincing ending to the set. In all, these works are tuneful and quirky but could be more varied in their orchestration and tempi. This sameness of feel between the dances probably works more effectively in the original dramatic context, where the demands of script and pacing demand more obvious musical homogeneity.

In Canticle of David (1957-59) Arcko has found an early work by iconic Australian composer Nigel Butterley. Whilst not representative of his later work, this piece certainly provides insights into the influences that perhaps helped shape his recent style. Cast in three movements, this traditional work showed fine polyphonic skill and orchestral subtlety. The stark angular lines of the opening Lament showed an affinity with the music of Shostakovich and Britten, whilst the rhapsodic central Prayer gave expressive opportunities to soloists Aaron Barnden (violin) and Caerwen Martin (cello), both of whom shone impressively. The concluding fugal Rejoicing gave the ensemble a chance to show their precision and energy in some full-blooded rusticity.

The concluding work was Brendan Colbert’s …floating in the void… (rev. 2005). Certainly the most challenging music presented, this work invited the audience into a mysterious and abstract sound world. The only piece on the program to deal meaningfully with space and silence, layers of isolated pizzicato morphed into thematic fragments that explored and mapped out a delicate and complex web of events. Timothy Phillips was able to highlight nuances of scoring while keeping the ensemble well balanced and clearly textured.

Lastly, mention should be made of the Gothiolin interludes that punctuated the concert. Resembling a giant insect, this corkscrew-legged construction allows four violins to be played by programmed mechanical bows. The abrasive interjections that were triggered between works were mercifully short, given the obvious limitations regarding pitch, dynamics and touch sensitivity. Interesting though it might be conceptually, its over-enthusiastic use, often impinging on the aural space created by the other works played, actually detracted from the concert. (It also prevented the audience from showing appreciation for the work just played.) As a sculpture or a piece of construction it certainly has some novelty value, but as it cannot really produce interesting music in its current form, it is probably better suited to the foyer or an installation space.

On the evidence of this performance, Arkco has the potential to develop into a fine ensemble, and an important part of Melbourne’s contemporary music landscape. The ensemble plays worthwhile and seldom-heard repertoire with energy and precision, and I look forward to hearing them in future concerts.

Event Details

The Arcko Symphonic Project presents: Pulling Strings
Works for string orchestra by Chisholm, Colbert, Butterley and Dargaville
Featuring interludes and postludes by the Gothiolin (James Hullick)
Timothy Phillips, conductor
Saturday 30 May 2009, Richmond Uniting Church, Melbourne, Vic

Mark Viggiani is a Melbourne-based composer. His recent works include pieces for the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Song Company and Speak Percussion. In 1997 Move Records released The Rainmaker, a CD of original compositions, to international critical acclaim. In 2009 Viggiani was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award towards a PhD in composition, following studies with Stuart Greenbaum and Elliott Gyger at Melbourne University.


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