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29 August 2007

The Beginning and the End of Snow

Ceridwen Davies (viola), Miriam Gordon-Stewart (soprano) Image: Ceridwen Davies (viola), Miriam Gordon-Stewart (soprano)  
© Albert Comper

Box office returns will not usually allow the extravagance of having multiple repeats of the same new music concert. But composer David Chisholm took on a risky venture by allocating three concerts for his new song cycle the beginning and the end of the snow. I heard that opening night had a respectable turnout of paid ticket holders; the audience momentum appeared to maintain itself until the end where I can report first hand that the closing concert was well attended. Attendance levels were possibly buoyed by The Age’s long-time reviewer Clive O’Connell describing the work as ‘essential listening’. I am not sure that the work in its totality is essential listening, but certainly parts of it feature exquisite writing.

Chisholm captures the moment with an absolute deftness of ear by making sure that sensitivity is never abandoned... There are 20 songs in the set, which features the work of French poet Yves Bonnefoy. Snow – real or imaginary – and its relationship to human beings or the landscape acts as the ballast. The poems, particularly the shorter ones, are beautifully constructed and reinforce a delicate ebb and flow. Chisholm captures the moment with an absolute deftness of ear by making sure that sensitivity is never abandoned.

One way that he the composer is able to create an ongoing level of interest is the use of an ensemble that covers a vast canvass of colours – clarinets, harp, viola, cello, piano, celeste and harpsichord – helping the soprano translate the composer’s interpretation.

Chisholm divides the cycle into two parts – the first section features the shorter poems; while the second half contains the longer texts. I feel the sonic release of the message is best served in the shorter works, as here Chisholm is better able to shape an instant perfectly. For this reviewer these twinkling pools of sounds are best expressed in sans titre (no. 1), Le jardin, and sans titre (no. 2). There are many creative memories, but these three songs are extraordinary in their beauty. Overall, the soprano writing is more in the form of recitative yet the composer returned periodically to create a lyrical phrase or two that effectively reinforces some dramatic pinpoints. A simple approach that is highly effective.

Yet colouristic effects in either the voice or the ensemble or both can only be piled together for so long before the gestures need to give way to some deeper structural concepts. The rambling nature of the longer poems enforced the composer, for the sake of unity, to maintain an attitude of pinpointing the moment. But the darting off to fleeting effectiveness wore thin over time as the sonic canvas developed an almost abstract quality with shaped colours having little relationship to one another.

Another aspect of Bonnefoy’s poems that the composer was unable to escape from is their controlled emotional content. There are no great splashes of intensity. Rather it is all about a demonstration of delicacy – like the texture of snow. While brilliantly reinforcing the poignancy of the material at any given time, Chisholm was unable, for the most part, to move beyond a small range of dynamics. Over the course of the cycle the lack of dynamic investigation makes for a level of uniformity that I did not read as a structural positive. And yet, when he does move to insist upon a louder sound pocket in Le tout, le rien the effect is riveting and not in anyway operatically melodramatic. One did crave for variance, which was also not that apparent in the tempi choices.

The program notes were a creation of art. It was a pity that the house lights were not able to remain at a level that enabled the audience to read the texts. The main lights were pulled so that Rachel Burke’s wash of lighting could have an effect. Well, it had no effect on this reviewer other than to act as a reminder that I wished for some reading light.

Miriam Gordon-Stewart (soprano), Richard Haynes (clarinets), Alice Giles (harp), Ceridwen Davies (viola), Caerwen Martin (cello), Peter Dumsday (keyboards) with conductor Timothy Phillips proved to be a dedicated ensemble and they collectively did the composer proud. the beginning and the end of the snow is coming out on CD, and for all my nitpicking it would be worth the trouble to locate a copy.

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Joel Crotty is deputy head, School of Music-Conservatorium, Monash University. His research interests are Australian and Romanian music, and he was on the AMC board between 1997-2003.


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