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30 May 2008

John Addison and Seung-Eun Lee in Adelaide

John Addison Image: John Addison  

The Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival (April 4-6 2008) was a celebration of new classical music from around the world. Comprising three individual concerts, as well as a unique composer forum, the festival featured new works from Australia, Europe and Asia, including compositions written in the 1950s and premieres by emerging and established Australian and international composers.

Composers featured during the festival included the Hobart-based Constantine Koukias, who composed a piece especially for Amsterdam-based Telesto Duo – this was one of the works premiered during the festival. Featuring Tiziana Pintus on violin and John Addison on cello, Telesto Duo also performed magical and intriguing works by Sofia Gubaidulina, renowned for her use of numerical sequences in structuring her work and her unusual, and often incredibly difficult, instrumental combinations.

Trio d’anche Suave (Seung-Eun Lee on oboe, Yoko Yokota on clarinet and Ai Ikeda on bassoon) made their Australian debut at the festival, giving several first performances. One of these was a piece for wind trio by the emerging Adelaide composer Anne Cawrse. Her composition Lullabies and Crooked Dances was commissioned by the festival with assistance from Arts SA.

The trio also gave world premieres of a wind trio by the Korean composer In-Sun Cho and an interactive work by the Dutch composer Mayke Nas. The trio’s performance was inspired by their collaboration with expatriate composers, influenced by both Asian and European cultures.

I asked the cellist John Addison – who is now based in Amsterdam but was born and raised and went through his studies in Australia – and the oboist Seung-Eun Lee to share their thoughts on their performances at the festival, the composers featured in the program, and contemporary performance technique.


John Addison on Gubaidulina and Koukias


Melissa Davey: Telesto Duo performed the Australian premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina's Rejoice! (Sonata for violin and cello) on the opening night of the Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival. Gubaidulina is known for her unusual instrumental combinations, but is there anything unusual about the way the two instruments have been combined in this piece?

John Addison: No, there is nothing unusual about the combination of instruments for this work – the combination of violin and cello is a common setting from the 18th century onwards. The only difference in this work is that the violin and cello have equal roles and that the writing for cello is quite often on the same pitch level as the violin, which makes for a very demanding cello part.

MD: The piece is comprised of five movements, and they are written so that the violin and cello contrast with each other in the odd movements – can you explain how they do this?

JA: In movements one, three and five the two instruments do contrast each other significantly. In the first movement the violin plays a very serene line that alternates between ‘normally’ pitched notes and with higher harmonics. This is a device that Gubaidulina uses to symbolise Heaven and Earth. The cello enters after the violin has established this theme and rests on a rather high harmonic for the duration of the first movement.

The third movement starts with virtuosic cadenzas for both instruments. The cello joins after a few lines of the violin cadenza with similar thematic material to that of the violin in the first movement. [There is] the same alternation between lower notes and harmonics, but the difference in this movement is that the violin’s material in the first movement is centred around the same pitches, while the cello journeys from the lowest string to the uppermost register of the A-string all the while building in intensity until it finally matches the intensity that the violin has been playing through its long, virtuosic cadenza material.

In the fifth movement the violin plays an energetic dance-like theme while the cello plays a much slower, softer and longer line. The movement is entitled ‘listen to the still, small voice within’. This is the role of the cello. The violin line is energetic and dance-like, but eventually it becomes almost like a Saint Vitus dance, and the cello takes over in its intensity. And finally the cello repeats the thematic material of the first movement by making long glissandi on the C-string, so going from very low to higher pitches. The fact that there is the glissando signifies the connection between Heaven and Earth.

MD: Gubaidulina’ s work is often described as something ‘magical’. Are there any particular key elements to the set-up or any performance techniques you adopt to convey the mood of the piece?

JA: The only unusual set-up on stage is the necessity of using two music stands each in order to hold the music – the second and third movements consist of four A3 pages. The only performance technique involved in this work is to make sure that you do not ‘perform’ but allow the music to speak for itself. The piece is renowned for being the most difficult violin and cello duet ever written, but this should not be visible to the audience as that would take away from the deeply emotional experience that listening to this work is.

MD: Do you have any comments or reflections on your performance of it at the Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival?

JA: We have been performing this particular piece around the world for the last six years. Every single performance for us is a powerful, emotional journey. It never feels as if we are playing it by remote control, which can sometimes occur with a repertoire piece. We were very pleased with our performance – in the technical run-through before the concert we were a little concerned at how loud the air-conditioning was and that we couldn’t turn it off for the duration of the concert. But once we began, nothing else existed except the music and our journey.

MD: What do you personally enjoy or find interesting about Sofia Gubaidulina’s works?

JA: I love playing the works of Sofia. They are intense emotional works and this allows me a kind of freedom that you sometimes do not get in contemporary music. We have been very fortunate to work with Sofia on several occasions. She is a deeply spiritual person who manages to pass on this intensity when you work with her, no matter what your own opinions about faith are.

MD: Can you tell me about the piece you performed by Constantine Koukias?

JA: The duo by Constantine was written especially for us to premiere at the festival. It is a beautifully crafted work that demonstrates his understanding of string technique. This is no small feat when you consider that he is not a trained string player.

MD: What themes or ideas are explored through this piece?

JA: Throughout the piece there are several Byzantine/Greek themes that I had come across before – I used to play in a trio for the promotion of Greek contemporary music. His use of this thematic material was very subtle and fully integrated into the work. Sometimes you find in pieces that have this material that the ancient melodies are grafted on to the work and do not organically grow out of the music. This was definitely not the case with the Koukias.

MD: How aware are you of the way you perform pieces such as those you played at the festival? Often these pieces are quite difficult or unique in their composition—is this revealed in the way you perform live?

JA: I find the notion of ‘performance techniques’ quite interesting. We ARE performers so there is no magical transformation when you go on stage. Our philosophy about performance is that our role is to present works to the audience. The experience should be about the music and not the performers who are performing it. To say that we are vessels for the music sounds too passive, but certainly our aim when we go on stage is to follow the score – and therefore the composer’s vision - faithfully and with great respect.


Seung-Eun Lee on Isang Yun and In-Sun Cho


Melissa Davey: What kind of legacy do you think Isang Yun left on new music and contemporary composers?

Seung-Eun Lee: He uses Korean traditional elements – vibrato, glissandi affect, gliss notes, energy direction. Based upon those materials he uses 'main-tone technique' to compose the piece. His music blends eastern and western elements into a unique personal style. And internationality of the modern period with national tradition.

MD: You played Rondell for Wind Trio by Isang Yun – Can you tell me about this piece and the ideas explored in it?

SL: The piece starts with the soft, long sound of 'a' on the oboe which is answered by the bassoon, as soft and quiet dialogue; then it develops into massive sounds with climactic tones, tremolo, trill, and very complicated scales to express suffering, pain and injustice, the main philosophy of his music and his life. Then [comes] the transition of slowly blurring the sharp contrast into the union of instruments for the quiet ending of the piece—that is very much a Korean traditional music ending.

MD: Your performance at the Adelaide Contemporary Music Festival featured the world premiere of Camino for wind trio by In-Sun Cho. Can you tell me about this composer and her work?

SL: In-Sun Cho is a very active composer in Korea, as well in Europe. She has devoted her life to music and never married or had a family, which is very unusual for a Korean woman. She’s a very passionate, warm and intelligent lady who fights against a male-dominated society. My first contact with her work was White Shadow which I have performed with Gabriella Smart at the Sunday Spectrum and OzAsia festivals last year. Camino is my second contact with her work. Both works of hers give me the impression that Cho uses traditional Korean music elements like Yun, tonality, variety of vibrato, glissando and traditional rhythm patterns, and she blends these with western composition techniques. She likes to put percussion instruments beside instruments such as voice and wind, which creates special colour and eastern atmosphere. And the structure of slow, quiet starts followed by massive, crazy, loud sessions and then finishing the piece with calm [is also typical of her music].

MD: In-Sun Cho is unique in her use of percussion in that way, isn’t she?

SL: Most of all, it was the playing of the percussion instruments that was unique. The oboe player has to play triangle, clarinet, musical chime – and the bassoonist plays the tam-tam. This presents a challenge for us to maintain control over the percussion instruments with timing, colour and dynamics. Other performance techniques she adopted included 'tone with voice': you have to sing in a certain tune while you play the instruments.

MD: Which piece did you enjoy performing the most at the festival and why?

SL: I liked very much the works of Cho and Cawrse. They are very enjoyable pieces to perform and the audiences loved them. But my personal choice, after performing, was Yun – surprisingly, because our trio worked on Yun's Rondell many years ago. Through the past and the present time of rehearsal and study, I have discovered more about him and have developed understanding of his great energy and colour of his work. His works are very intelligent, extremely expressive and deep. He takes time to understand, like a good old wine.


Performance Details



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Melissa Davey is a journalist working in Sydney though she is originally from Perth. She freelances as a music journalist in her spare time, with a particular interest in the avant-garde, and was the editor of Grok Magazine in 2007. She currently writes for Drum Media, works for the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and is undertaking training at Fairfax.


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