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4 July 2008

Ensemble Nu

West Australian Art Gallery // WA // 07.05.08

Ensemble Nu

It was one of those ideas, dreamt up over lunch at a restaurant, which developed over several more meals into the launch of a new 13-piece group. Ensemble Nu, with the support of Tura New Music, got off to an impressive start in early May with a sold-out debut concert at the WA Art Gallery.

The group has brought together WA’s elite freelance musicians and several WA Symphony Orchestra players to profile the masterpieces of our time – progressive and exciting compositions that otherwise wouldn’t be heard in Perth. Director Matthew Hoy’s stimulating first program featured works written in the past 35 years exploring the integration of literature into musical expression.

American compositions filled the bulk of the night, including Steve Reich’s now iconic Different Trains. This chugging, whistling tribute to railway lines is fascinating performed live; a string quartet plays along to a tape containing two pre-recorded quartets and snatches of speech. The vocal rhythm is fractured and passed around the instruments with a detailed layering that is prodigiously difficult to coordinate. Unfortunately the live quartet of Semra Lee and Zak Rowntree on violins, Alex Brogan viola and Jennika Anthony-Shaw on cello was overpowered by the recording and their cautious approach didn’t push this work to its mechanical, roaring climax.

Electric violin and bass guitar brought an eerie tone to Frederik Rzewski’s rarely heard Coming Together. This fascinating socio-historic piece featured a letter written by an American activist from prison. Soprano Christina Gronborg-Reilly narrated the letter in alternately stern, sighing, aloof and aggressive tones, and the timeless repetition of prison existence was reflected in the minimalistic patterns in the music. Some shaky ensemble moments were held in check by the precision of Emily Green-Armytage on piano, and Steve Richter and Paul Tanner on percussion.

Michael Torke’s Song of Isaiah was a buoyant contrast. A syncopated refrain and episodes exploring both esoteric and funky musical languages was performed with outstanding ensemble work and rich sound, hinting at the dramatic muscle this group will develop as they continue to perform together. Gronborg-Reilly was less assured here; her barely controlled delivery of the scripture was difficult to understand and her constant vibrato unrelenting.

An excerpt from Perth composer Iain Grandage’s score for Drover’s Wives set iconic text from Henry Lawson’s poem with the percussive tapping and thudding syncopations of a string trio. Michael Dougherty’s Sinatra Shag was treated a little too seriously, although Alex Millier’s energetic bass clarinet blues bounced along cheekily to Richter’s swing drumming.

The undoubted highlight was percussionist Paul Tanner’s mesmerising performance of Vinko Globokar’s Toucher. Tanner narrated a French script from Brecht’s The Life of Galileo while accompanying himself on hand percussion. Each instrument represented French vowel sounds and the intricate nuances from the drums and gongs eventually replaced the spoken word entirely. Impossibly demanding, Tanner delivered the work with great communication and dramatic flair, performing entirely from memory. It’s a reminder of the immense talent in Perth and the importance of groups like this who reveal the potency of the music of our time.

Performance details

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Rosalind Appleby is a Perth-based music critic. She writes for The West Australian and hosts the program Difficult Listening on the Perth radio station RTR FM. She has been involved in the WA music scene both as a journalist and as a performer.


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