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20 May 2008

A Brave Yet Thrilling Pairing

Sydney Symphony // NSW // 26.03.08

Georges Lentz Image: Georges Lentz  

Preceding the sombre, near-funereal march of Dimitri Shostakovich’s 8th with the existential, wide-eyed hope of Georges Lentz’s Mohn may have seemed to some an unusual programming choice, yet those witness to these performances were privy to something quite special – a brave yet thrilling pairing.

While many may be familiar with Lentz in his role as a violinist for the SSO, tonight he was physically absent from the stage, behind the curtains and no doubt nervously anticipating the Australian debut of his work Monh. The work was commissioned for viola wunderkind Tabea Zimmermann, who was being conducted along with the SSO by husband Steven Sloane.

Written for viola, orchestra and electronics, Monh relied a great deal on the delicate touch of the solo viola, played with a mesmerising blend of pinpoint precision and passionate verve by Zimmermann. Her strings seemed ever so tightly wound, as though each touch and glance with her bow had the implicit potential to snap them. Making extended techniques seemed like child’s play, Zimmermann gets inside this work as though it’s a second skin; displaying an intuition matched only by Sloane’s gentle command. Her strained notes buzzed and hummed like a trapped bee, hovering just above the rest of the orchestra as sounds of the various instruments slowly unravelled, offering gentle, unhurried, counterpoint cameos.

Lentz is apparently inspired by the vastness - the awe-inspiring spiritual silence - of the night sky, and by extension the greater universe. Used to the clear-cut narrative threads and journeys of many of the pieces in the SSO season, it was refreshing and rewarding to be treated to a whole new approach to orchestral writing. Lentz is apparently inspired by the vastness – the awe-inspiring spiritual silence – of the night sky, and, by extension, the greater universe. His music reflects his approach to writing: unrushed, unfolding in its own, natural rhythm over a space of years.

His aim is to create music that does not evolve or unfold, but simply ‘is’. Taken from the Pythagorean concept of the Music of the Spheres, his goal is nothing less than attempting to translate music produced by the rotation of the heavenly spheres and audible to God, but inaudible to human ears.

After wondering whether this 'ambient', near-mystical approach was able to provide enough corporeal touching points, it was heartening to find that rewards could be found in surprising places, and also to discover that we didn't need our hands held throughout the piece.

Untethered, we were left to roam through the musical veld, yet provided with occasional signposts by which to recognise our way back into the work's silent inner-core, if we so wished.

Although celestial realms inspired the work, my own imaginings and echoes tended to drift towards nautical senses. The gentle ebb and flow and the drift between disparate colours and tones proved more akin to diving beneath the ocean's surface than drifting through the night sky.

This was one of the beauties of the piece: it became a shimmering reflection of what we – the audience – brought to it. You hear far too much about 'organic' music that is anything but, yet here was a work that actually qualified. It grew and it breathed, pulsing with subtle inhalations and exhalations; a meditative work that you sensed had a life beyond the concert hall. This was helped greatly by Zimmerman’s playing exhibiting a similar life, breathing with a soul all of its own.

Another delight was the way the work manages to be so sparse, yet never wisp away. The silences are as heavy, as full of possibility, as the notes. While this is a frequent conceit, it's rare to find it actually working to such moving affect.

This elevation of intricacies to the vanguard of the work, the polyphonic shimmers given a starring role that was more than mere adornment, set the work apart. What kept it moving, gave it the inner strength to risk these silences and delicacies, was a rich layering that was almost beyond our conscious engagement.

Beneath the more apparent ideas and lines, there’s far more going on than meets the eye. Embedded traces of concepts and fragments of thought are stitched into the work’s lining, enriching the listening experience without us necessarily knowing why.

In trying to pinpoint influences, there are no immediate touchstones – it’s music born of an independent mind reaching out rather than back.

Structurally, despite the absence of traditional orchestral leading lines pulling us through, the viola serves as a willing guide. We follow its every stutter and titter, sweep and swoop, putting all our trust in Zimmermann's touch.

The percussion-driven crescendo arrives without warning yet still feels the perfect moment. Thai gongs, tubular bells and music stands struck with felt mallets had provided texture through the piece, but now made way for thunderous bass drum pounding and a climactic crash of what looked like a wooden sledgehammer being smashed down onto an unyielding table.

This fortissimo crashes in two thirds of the way through the work and serves as a satisfying release from the tension that had imperceptibly taken hold. This tension hangs not on what is there, but isn't; silence and loneliness writ musical.

This was one of those magical moments that to me demonstrates what music is all about. The effect was all the richer because it was a complete surprise; I had no pre-conceived notions of what to expect, having actually come with expectations sharpened for Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8.

It's a mark of Lentz's deft touch that his work was not immediately overshadowed by the dense gravity of Shostakovich's 8th. The extended first movement begins its journey with the lower strings, a sombre, near funereal march. We are anchored in a set time and place: a reality that has both enabled the piece and given us a means by which to understand its drawn-out drama.

The tone is not quite black but far from cheerful; by today’s standards it’s not necessarily difficult, but it certainly refuses to rest on romantic conceits or warm flourishes to welcome us in. The work’s brooding tonality sits on the heart and invites reflection. There are occasional glimmers of hope, but it’s measured, careful and deliberate.

A great strength of the Symphony is its unity of vision. It’s a highly coherent work; at each point the musical ideas are able to be traced to others along the long, slow journey.

Can we hope, after 60 minutes, for a release? No. Its quiet ending, drawing peace into its embrace, brings us full circle, back to the contemplative space of Lentz. The dramatic opening has matured, it has come to this: not an answer as such, but reconciliation; a truce.

Initially wary about selecting seats behind the orchestra, I've come to relish the opportunity to see its inner workings – the expressions on the conductor's face, the array of toys at the percussionists' ready. Having sat too far back in the Opera House's nose bleed seats in previous seasons, it's a dramatic turn for the better being able to hear the differentiated parts and not just struggling to stay awake under a faint musical wash. When the SSO are at their best, as sparked by a work's beauty as they were tonight, it's like lifting the lid on a music box, seeing the lovingly hewn cogs that drive the beautiful machine.

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Ben Millar is a Sydney based journalist, writer and photographer. He works as a journalist and editor for a stable of community newspapers and writes for the Sunday Telegraph .


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