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4 June 2009

Southern Cross Soloists with Alexis Kenny

Brisbane // QLD // 26.05.2009

Southern Cross Soloists with Alexis Kenny
© David Kelly

Introducing new music by stealth to conventional audiences has been a technique long employed by orchestras and concert programmers in an attempt to ease their paying patrons out of the nineteenth century into something approaching contemporary appreciation. This approach highlights the nurturing role adopted by classically trained musicians in response to an aging concert-going public and the perennial lacuna separating the type of music composed and the type of music actually in demand in any given period.

While this kind of programming no doubt serves to propagate a certain species of musical moderation in new commissions, it both ensures canonical continuity and also, of course, supports a living community of local composers and a culture of creativity. In the second concert of the Southern Cross Soloists Showcase Series, this attitude was palpable, and it is perhaps their sensitivity to the continued public discomfort with new music which underlies their success. Their model is an interesting commercial phenomenon and deserves far more deconstructing than there is room for here. The group’s persona seems split between presenting as a parental body of experts, guiding the tentative yet willing student of music-appreciation through a potentially uncomfortable experience, and a group of musicians who are, on one level, in the same position as the audience, struggling with grass-roots artistic honesty to interpret and present the beguiling offerings of modern composers.

In this concert, the Australian premiere of Brett Dean’s Polysomnography was embedded within the heftiest possible cushioning – namely, three works of French late-romanticism. The evening opened with four songs from Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson (arranged by Paul Dean). Beautifully introduced and sung by soprano Margaret Schindler – attired in a stunning red toga – the songs did indeed present a type of tonal ambiguity which could be considered reasonably 'modern' for Fauré, yet they were lushly offered within a swathe of velvety waves of piano arpeggiation. Revelatory moments of sunshine were made to quickly swing back to harmonic uncertainty, facilitated on each occasion by a peculiar leading-note shift. The characteristic emotional presence of each of the Southern Cross performers was, as always, a delight to behold.

The lush themes of French romanticism continued with Chaminade’s Flute Concertino, performed by Alexis Kenny. Though this work may be a favourite among audiences and an unavoidable concert piece for flautists, it is difficult to imagine a more sickly-sweet experience, and one based on such minimal thematic material. The work was plainly programmed to conform to the flavour of the evening, and Kenny rendered its limited musical substance with the utmost sensitivity, displaying impressive control of sustained diminuendo pitches and, of course, the perfect technical proficiency audiences have come to expect from her performances. Even with such overbearing musical fairy-floss, there was not a single hint of gratuitousness in Kenny’s presentation of the work – rhythmically, expressively and musically, everything remained in its place as a point of considered intention. The evocation of orchestral colour was amply provided by the ensemble, performing Kevin Power’s arrangement of the score.

After the interval came the Australian premiere of Dean’s Polysomnography. Upon entry into the concert at the start of the evening, audience members had been presented with an ambiguous addendum to the concert program which read: 'As we are giving the first Australian performance of a new work this evening, we have provided below a number of quotes from twelve reviews of modern music performances, which may give you some assistance in expressing your feelings about this music.' Following this were twelve scathing reviews, admonishing their un-identified subject with such terms as 'incoherent', 'shrill', 'cacophonous', 'dreary' and 'repugnant'. The archaic turn of phrase redolent in these reviews made the intention behind their distribution in this context patently clear. There was a hearty chuckle, of course, when Power explained the context of the reviews as describing premieres of works such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bizet's Carmen and other now-standard concert repertoire.

The audience was thus amply primed, both musically and intellectually, for any ensuing new music onslaught. Sandwiched as it was between the sweetness of the first half of the program and the perky Canteloube songs which closed the concert, the premiere of Dean’s Polysomnography did not seem to occupy the pinnacle of the concert. It seemed rather akin to the gherkin on a McDonalds cheeseburger which continues to be included for some spice, yet which most patrons would remove before consumption if given the choice. The heavy ideological apology implied by the program addendum – 'you probably won’t like this, but it may be considered a masterpiece in the future and your dislike is thus an expression of your temporal naivety' – and the juxtaposition of Dean’s work within the aural comfort of lush French romanticism, may have suggested that the work was to be extraordinarily ambitious in its structural or harmonic innovation.

The work itself was instead decidedly accessible, and despite the challenges the musicians had apparently experienced in relation to matters of 'ensemble' and rhythmic complexity, the line of the work was aptly held and clearly presented. The group’s timbral integration is perhaps its greatest achievement, and in the service of Dean’s work this gave the effect of a perfectly woven fabric comprising thick strips of smooth wool, especially in sections of sustained dissonance (which may otherwise have proved to be ugly intonation nightmares). These sections, instead, achieved a vision of deep primordial beginnings. Although very few extended techniques were employed, Dean admirably savoured their use for textual effect – such as oboe multiphonics used to create a frustrated stasis – rather than being merely atmospheric. Similarly, in the fifth movement, breath noises were used with clear purpose to disperse the solid timbre of the winds. Extended techniques appeared here with apparent textual necessity, rather than as an annoying idiosyncrasy. The piano seemed to direct the downward journey into the deepening sleep states which the work describes, with its angular marcato line in the second movement picked up by flutter-tongued bell notes in the winds, a simple and relentless descending scale in the third movement disturbed only by the occasional flourish or sustained-note interlude, and with its similarly dampening role in the fourth movement, making the articulated textual turmoil of the winds murkier and drawing the listener forever deeper.

Clear motivic units were discernible particularly through the fifth movement, where the opening bassoon exclamations evoked the fluttering eyelids of dreaming. Again, Kenny’s control over sustained growing and dying passages was an impressive addition to the ensemble timbre. Polysomnography seems, on first hearing, a proficient new work with both structural integrity and expressive interest. The ensemble’s fine performance of the piece saw it smoothly received.

Event details

Southern Cross Soloists with Alexis Kenny
Showcase Series: Concert Two
26 May 2009
Conservatorium Theatre, Brisbane, Qld
La Bonne Chanson – Fauré (arr. Dean)
Flute Concertino – Chaminade (arr. Power)
Polysomnography – Brett Dean (Australian Premiere)
Songs of the Auvergne (Series 4) – Canteloube (arr. Dean)

Further links

Southern Cross Soloists (www.southernxsoloists.com)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Sarah Collins lectures part-time at the University of Queensland in music history and cultural studies, is currently completing her PhD in the School of Music, and has performed throughout Australia and internationally as a flautist with various contemporary music ensembles and orchestras.


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