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25 September 2009

Solar soundscapes, clarinet class and stellar Stravinsky

WASO: Ledger, Lindberg, Stravinsky // Perth // WA // 11.09.2009

James Ledger Image: James Ledger  

How refreshing it was to hear premiered works by two contemporary composers rousingly applauded by a packed house at the Perth Concert Hall on Friday night. Rather than acting as support pieces for the headline work, Stravinsky's Petrushka, the new works were enthusiastically received by an exuberant and appreciative audience.

The evening commenced with the world premiere of James Ledger's latest work, Chronicles - Diptych for Orchestra. A Perth-based composer, Ledger is almost at the end of his three-year position as composer-in-residence with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, and this is his final piece in this role. Inspired by his recent sabbatical in Estonia, Chronicles sonically explores the character of sunlight as it travels across a Northern winter sky. This successful work signifies a new direction for James Ledger, where superfluities are stripped away, exposing a strong yet sensitive core.

As the term 'diptych' of the title suggests, Chronicles is a work in two parts. The first movement, entitled 'In Clouds', is a study in muted orchestral colour. Moving between moments of stillness, the orchestration features the unique character of the steel drum. This potentially risky choice actually worked extremely effectively in the context of this sunlit soundscape. Its distinctive personality rang out, cutting through the rich accompaniment of the string and woodwind chorale like rays of sun through the clouds. The metallic timbre of the steel drums was echoed by an array of triangles, and also by the celesta. After a series of textural waves, the orchestra continued to build, before vanishing suddenly, to reveal a solo piccolo and muted trumpet, ending quietly and subdued.

The second part, 'Here Comes the Dawn', reflects a certain melting away, as solid, intact forms transmute into more fluid, less stable offerings. This is represented musically by a rigid motif, which gradually deteriorates, punctuated by jagged brass interjections. Steel drums reappear, the celesta flurries and strings buzz, building then fading to another unresolved conclusion. The unpredictable directions this work takes are among its strong points, mirroring the unexpectedness of mother nature and the bittersweetness felt at the passing of her display.

The audience was subsequently treated to the Australian premiere of a recent work by Finnish composer, Magnus Lindberg. His single-movement Clarinet Concerto was written specifically with clarinet virtuoso and good friend, Kari Kriikku, in mind, and Perth was very fortunate to witness Kriikku's skill and talent first-hand.

The piece begins with the announcement of a playful melodic fragment by solo clarinet, before strings join and the texture thickens. Within the five distinct sections, musical landscapes are produced through modal harmonies and ornate decoration, amidst a wide variety of textures and rhythms. The clarinet part encompasses the full melodic range and technical possibilities of the instrument, and includes an extended improvised cadenza, which was the highlight of Kriikku's performance. With regards to this improvisation, Kari Kriikku informed listeners after the concert that he usually approaches it with a basic plan, but improvises as much as possible. As he stated so perceptively, 'the aim of improvisation is to surprise yourself'. He extended the clarinet through didjeridu-like passages, bird calls, piccolo imitations, bends and amazingly light multiphonic trills. Watching him perform was as captivating as the sounds he produced. Whilst he seemed to play the instrument with his whole body, treating it as a dance partner, his movements were always sincere and unaffected, and never contrived. His warm, enthusiastic personality shone through and earned him a whole concert hall of new fans.

Written in 1911 for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka finds a place on many people's lists of favourite orchestral works. Putting the work in its original context, the Perth Concert Hall presented a display in the mezzanine foyer of authentic memorabilia, including puppets, programs and photographs of Nijinsky, lead dancer in the opening Ballets Russes production. The WASO delivered a solid performance of this work, although there appeared to be moments of lack of synchronisation between piano and flute at times. This may have been a result of the slightly ambiguous, overstated conducting style of Paul Daniels - his recent long-term engagement with the English National Opera may account for his grand gestures.

All three pieces were heartily enjoyed and loudly cheered. James Ledger remarked after the concert that he was really pleased and excited by the WASO's performance of his work that evening, and that he could feel the orchestra feeding off each other. This was evident to all present. Although Ledger's residency is coming to a close, I am sure the WASO will still perform many of this talented local composer's works in the future. As for Kari Kriikku, this was his first visit to Australia, but hopefully not his last. He tours regularly and his next engagement is with the New York Philharmonic. He is also currently involved in an ensemble with string orchestra and percussion, performing an exciting and eclectic mix of folk musics from Argentinian tango to Arabic and Hungarian music, Portuguese fado and Klezmer. Hopefully, Australia will feature on their tour schedule some day.

Performance Details

WASO at the Totally Huge New Music Festival
Works by James Ledger, Magnus Lindberg, Igor Stravinsky
Performed by West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Paul Daniel (conductor) and Kari Kriikku (clarinet)
Perth Concert Hall, WA
11 September 2009

Further Links

James Ledger - AMC (www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/artist/ledger-james)
James Ledger - homepage (www.jamesledger.com)
WASO (www.waso.com.au)
Magnus Lindberg (www.boosey.com/composer/Magnus+Lindberg)

Kelly Curran is currently an Honours student in the Bachelor of Music course at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, majoring in composition. Several of her chamber works have been performed around Perth, and she has also composed for dance and film. She was recently nominated for a West Australian Screen Award for best score for the short film Silent Beauty. She is currently researching postmodern approaches to chamber music, and is interested in bridging the gap between popular and art music cultures.


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