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6 October 2009

Gubaidulina and Schoenberg frame Adelaide’s Soundstream festival

Adelaide // SA // 19-22.08.2009

Gubaidulina and Schoenberg frame Adelaide’s Soundstream festival

It was short at only four days and five concerts, but with her second new music festival in Adelaide, artistic director and pianist Gabriella Smart has shown a promising ability to draw together top-notch performers, program interesting works, and draw respectably sized audiences to the shows. The best things on the bill were the opening concert's performance of Gubaidulina's cantata-cum-cello concerto Sonnengesang (1997), the final concert's performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912) with singer Greta Bradman, and a superb concert on the final morning featuring terrific instrumentalists playing five intriguing works, of which Polish-born Hanna Kulenty's cello and piano piece A Fourth Circle (1994) particularly stood out.

The two concerts in the middle of the festival pushed the envelope at their respective ends of the spectrum, with Adelaide's Zephyr (String) Quartet performing a program of klezmer-inspired works around Osvaldo Golijov's formidable Yiddishbbuk (1992), and Melbourne's Anthony Pateras and Robin Fox living up to their badass billing with a mean and, I'll confess, wholesomely stimulating show of largely nasty-sounding improvised glitch music (it might have another name) and a brief but spectacular 3-D laser light show.

It would be hard to imagine a much better start to a festival of new music in Adelaide than a performance of Sofia Gubaidulina's Sonnengesang (Canticle of the Sun) in a dimly-lit St Peter's Cathedral. Given the near-fanatically focussed intent and austerity of her music's message, you could assume a certain asceticism of compositional means, though you would be fooled: there's a couple of semis out the back, loaded with a huge and varied arsenal of historic and conceptual references, and a fair few tricks of the composer's making, including the biggest one of all, the one that makes her music really good new music - the ability to combine the disparate elements from this mind-boggling battery into a highly distinctive personal language which speaks as potent and viscerally affecting music, and a provoking meta-music, a music about music, her own, frankly personal writing pitted against and mingled with the general, the anonymous, and the historical, which are constantly echoed and referenced. It's music about the cello (and Rostropovich to whom it's dedicated), and it's music about Russian church music, and it's music about Romantic gestures, and it's music about the musical portrayal of prayer and religious meditation. The fiendishly difficult piece was beautifully performed by the Adelaide Chamber Singers, who, together with conductor Carl Crossin, must be saluted for committing to such an undertaking. I felt the music and the performance deserved a standing ovation, but it didn't get one - except from a man in denims and an Adelaide United FC sports jacket who stood up alone - for the length of the applause - to salute the performance and its affecting power.

Sometimes one can sense an imperative for these kinds of festivals to feature more Australian content, but I was grateful for the way the few Australian works were tucked into a more international (albeit mainly European) context. There were a few notable Aussie moments, particularly in the fourth concert, where pieces by Brett Dean and Adelaide's David Harris were performed. Flautist Geoff Collins brought his customary poise and virtuosity to bear on Dean's highly virtuosic and extremely engaging 2004 solo Demons. Composer David Harris has been at the centre of composition studies in Adelaide for more than a decade, first at Flinders Street, and then at the Elder Conservatorium. His Chinook (2009) for clarinet, cello, and piano used perhaps the most familiar compositional idiom of any on the program.

Harris's piece is a theme and variations of about ten minutes whose title refers to a variety of salmon who, born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean before returning to the river to reproduce and die. Harris's trio focused on long, forward-propelled passages of glistening Poulencian polyphony which enveloped the listener and swept them through a variety of subtly, almost impressionistically shifting moods.

Zephyr Quartet's performance (concert 2) contained two premieres by Adelaide composers Quentin Grant and Melisande Wright in a concert centered on Argentinian-born Osvaldo Golijov's impressive Yiddishbbuk, which would here prove to be the towering instance of an authorly treatment of the Jewish musical theme. Violinist Emily Tulloch led the ensemble in performing this dissonant and harrowing work, for which the entire group seemed to lift their energy and commitment levels by a notch or two.

Quentin Grant's Klezmer Variations and Melisande Wright's Lighter Shades of Pale were lovely, though (and this is probably more a programming and packaging criticism) within a new music festival, too comfortably amicable in their klezmer inspiration. Together with arrangements of a traditional Sephardic tune and a short piece by Ernest Bloch, the program would have made a great regular Zephyr concert, but within a festival where all the other programming seemed distinctly purposeful, this program came in a little lightweight in terms of material that was discernibly original or seriously frank.

The mainly electronic concert by Anthony Pateras and Robin Fox left one convinced that they know their stuff, confirming their standing as this country's leading representatives of an international trend. Apart from the first 15-minute piano solo by Pateras, the show was focussed on music produced by electronic means, and seemed to heavily feature 'glitch' type noises, as well as other, sometimes clearly acoustic inputs, processed through effect-facilitating soft- and hardware. In the first section, the combination of Pateras's piano solo with Fox's music and 3-D light show made for a half where there was a relationship between what one saw and heard. In the second half, for the half-dozen or so items, the two guys were more or less in front of the computers and their gear the entire time, and apart from a few breaths or groans from Pateras at the outset of a couple of items, you'd never know what hit you - you were just taken, without orientation aids to speak of, through a series of sound canvases consisting of fast-moving, anxious electronic noise.

The processes of this music were unfamiliar to me, except in the most general terms - its basic materials frequently not identifiable, its means of development, compositionally speaking, not discernible, and the point or essence of its 'liveness' in performance obscure - and so the experience provoked in me an instinct to reject it from what I might seriously consider to be music. At the same time, the experience triggered a certain euphoric enjoyment as I listened to this, I suppose, conceptually liberated soundscape. In any case, I found the experience stimulating and enjoyable, so thanks to Messrs Fox and Pateras, and to Ms Smart for thinking outside the box, although, just casually and with absolutely no admonitory undertones, I do wonder why this stuff does seem to snuggly belong as the adventure ride in a set of otherwise classical concerts, whilst performances in contemporary genres such as jazz, hip-hop, techno - all of which have extremely vital experimental currents around them - are for the moment well outside what I am able to imagine in a festival like this.

The closing concert consisted of Schoenberg's nearly century-old expressionist masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire with the dynamo soprano Greta Bradman and a formidable line-up of instrumentalists that included Gabriella Smart on piano, John Addison on cello, Peter Handsworth on clarinets, and the flautist Geoffrey Collins, all conducted by Charles Bodman Rae. It was superbly performed, though for a treat as rare as this, the printed program's inclusion of the German texts but not their English translations was exasperating.

The festival featured the efforts of Addison, who performed in three of the five concerts, as well as giving a workshop over several days for composers on extended cello techniques. The last two concerts used the same instrumentalists, and Greta Bradman was prominent in the first Gubaidulina performance, and starred in the closing Pierrot. You could see that kind of spreading and sharing as parsimonious, but I saw it as great use of exceptional talent within what was, really, a very small but hugely valuable shoestring-budget festival that impressed with its intelligent programming, dynamic organisation, and whose potential, to me as an Adelaidean, is extremely exciting.

Event details

Soundstream Adelaide New Music Festival 2009
19 - 22 August

Concert 1: Perspective
Music by Sofia Gubaidulina
Adelaide Chamber Singers; John Addison, cello; Nick Parnell, percussion; Jamie Adam, percussion; Marianna Grynchuk, celeste; Carl Crossin, conductor
Dave Palmer, trombone; Adelaide Sax Pack saxophone quartet (Adam Page, soprano saxophone; Tom Pulford, alto saxophone; Mike Stewart, tenor saxophone; Jon Hunt, baritone saxophone); David Sharp, cello; Harley Gray, double bass; Marianna Grynchuk, tam tam; Amanda Phillips, movement direction
Wednesday 19 August
St Peter's Cathedral, North Adelaide, SA

Concert 2: Yiddishbbuk
Music by Bloch, Quentin Grant, Golijov, Melisande Wright
Zephyr Quartet (Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch, violins; Anna Webb, viola; Hilary Kleinig, cello)

Concert 3: Pateras and Fox
Anthony Pateras, prepared piano and electronics; Robin Fox, electronics

Concert 4: Demons
Music by Boulez, Tan Dun, Harris, Dean, Kulenty
James Cuddeford, violin; Gabriella Smart, piano; Peter Handsworth, clarinet; John Addison, cello; Geoffrey Collins, flute

Concert 5: Moondrunk
Arnold Schoenberg: Pierrot lunaire (1912)
Greta Bradman, recitation; Geoffrey Collins, flute and piccolo; Peter Handsworth, clarinet and bass clarinet; James Cuddeford, violin and viola; John Addison, cello; Gabriella Smart, piano; Charles Bodman Rae, conductor

Further links

Soundstream: Adelaide New Music Festival (http://soundstream.org.au/)
'Music that needs to be seen' - Chris Reid's article about the festival by in RealTime

Aleksandr Tsiboulski is a classical guitarist based in Adelaide.


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