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19 November 2014

Giving composers a go: Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta

The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta in rehearsal Image: The Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta in rehearsal  

It's a dilemma facing us emerging composers: if you want to write for orchestra, where are the opportunities? Granted, some of the country's major symphony orchestras offer development programs, and some of these result in a public performance. I myself have had the great fortune of partaking in said programs, and I've found them to be some of the highlights of my career. But while these experiences are indispensable to a composer, opportunities to have one's large ensemble works heard aren't exactly plentiful.

Enter the Melbourne Metropolitan Sinfonietta: an 18-piece orchestra dedicated to helping the current generation of young composers get their music played, and get to the next stage in their careers. I chatted to 'the Met's' artistic director Michael Bakrnčev (yes, it's a cheeky nickname), and he told me the Sinfonietta is dedicated not only to performing as much new local music as they can get their hands on, they're also promising repeat performances (music to any contemporary composer's ears).

The group's line-up is based on ensembles like the London Sinfonietta, and includes nine string players, single woodwinds and brass, and a percussionist. While still in its infancy (they only launched last week), the group has already managed to showcase works by six young composers. And they're planning collaborations with other local groups, composers and conductors in their 2015 season.

Michael asked me to come along to the Met's inaugural concert last week, at one of Melbourne's favourite cultural playgrounds, the Abbotsford Convent. The program did arouse my curiosity: as well as performing works by five young Australians and one New Zealander, the ensemble was going to take on movements from some major works by much older masters, like Tchaikovsky and Mahler. There's something refreshingly audacious about programming music by young Australians next to those giants.

And funny thing is, it worked. The idea was to show off 'snapshots' of what the ensemble could do, and I think what brought it off was the whole group's energy. Under Michael's direction and that of Guest Conductor Sascha Kelly, the ensemble gave some powerful performances in a wildly diverse program. Michael and the Sinfonietta's orchestra manager Tim Duncan (also the principal bass trombone/tuba player) managed to put together a diverse band of young freelancers and professionals to deliver an impressive showcase of the old and the new.

In terms of the new, there was plenty of diversity on offer. Auckland-based Celeste Oram's Necrotechno introduced a hauntingly strange chord that warped slowly while the ensemble played against stopwatches. Adam Cook's I Heart Paris offered impressions of the foreign city with a thick, full soundworld. The variegated sound world of recent Melbourne resident Lisa Cheney's Arcane was fantastic and frightening in its detail and colour, while Brisbane-based Samantha Wolf's Questionable Characters had an engaging dance-like spirit. Sydney composer Anastasia Pahos brought suave string writing and an attractive groove in her work, Eliksiir. Even Michael Bakrnčev featured, with an intense noise study titled Folktales from GJ832c that shook the room with raging discord.

And the Mahler and Tchaikovsky? The purist might disagree, but the sound was fresh, and symphonically speaking the effect was still punchy and brimming with life. The second movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, while maybe not as 'Titanic' as in its original guise, had all the rollicking abandon the music requires. And the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony was just as rapturous. The concert found an apt finale in the grand strains of Ravel's arrangement of Mussorgsky's 'Great Gate of Kiev' from his Pictures at an Exhibition (with fresh brass parts by Tim Duncan).

Now, like any new ensemble, there were some teething issues when it came to balance, but what I couldn't get over the whole time was how positive the vibe was. It was patently clear the Sinfonietta is an important initiative, and one that deserves to grow and develop into next year. All fledgling organisations need a bit of financial help, and 'the Met' have already found a supportive public beginning to answer their call through a kickstarter campaign online.

Hopefully the future's bright for this promising new band. And while they're waiting for a commission from one of the big orchestras, composers should really have these guys on their radar.

Andrew Aronowicz is a Melbourne-based composer, teacher and writer. He completed his MMus in composition in 2013, and was in Sydney early in 2014 as the Australian Youth Orchestra Music Presentation Fellow, working at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Limelight Magazine and ABC Radio National (The Music Show).


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