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7 August 2009

Zubin Kanga & Crush

Zubin Kanga Image: Zubin Kanga  
© Bridget Elliot

In the beginning was the Steinway, with the stage all to itself, no more suspecting what it was about to be called on to do than anyone in the audience. This was set to be a piano recital, yes?

Well, yes, with a lot of 'no' mixed in. The days of the piano having any more secrets to keep to itself are numbered. In this performance, Zubin Kanga dissected his representative Steinway with a ruthless clinicism that left the near-capacity audience with little to do at the end save shake their heads, and applaud. They heard from seven composers who cared little for keyboard etiquette, to the extent of subjecting this one instrument to an examination that would have challenged Steinway’s own studios. When it was over, Kanga was looking as pleased and relieved as he had every right to feel after his astonishing performance. The piano was still standing there, looking much as it had at the beginning, give or take an added battle scar or two.

The music of Alex Hills gave Kanga his entry into a program of intense virtuosity and sustained concentration. The concept behind Injera was one of food, specifically in an Ethiopian setting, but the combination of Kanga and Steinway was more than enough to secure the audience’s attention, even without having yet read the concert notes. Those notes would have made for an interesting comparison between what the composer set out to create, and the purely sonic expression of how it was experienced by the listeners. In this case, given their ignorance of whatever may or may not have befallen Alex Hills in Ethiopia, the impression on the audience was still profound.

It did not take Kanga long to show himself to be equally comfortable in passages of lyric beauty, or soft introspection, or a spot of nightclub jazz, which all featured in the work of Cyrus Meurant and won approving comments from the audience. The instant transitions from one effect to the next often came in moments when Kanga flung his hands to the extent of his reach, left and right, the full keyboard span, while simultaneously playing just about every note on the way there. Too fast, surely, to be able to read the score at the same time! Good memory? Panoramic vision?

Michael Finnissy’s English Country Tunes seemed to have a rather deceptive title, as it was hardly a pastoral piece. It is the work of a composer who has been through his own phases of alienation and radicalism, with the hint, in the program notes, that Finnissy has yet to work his way out of the unrest he values in his music. This is a rare admission, most composers seem to have got their anger and emotion under control when they come to put something in front of an audience. Finnissy looks set to continue rejecting the temptation to graft fairy tale endings on to the realities of life.

Claudia Molitor’s Tango presented the audience with something entirely new. They were not sure whether to find it amusing or profound, when Kanga rose to make a tour round his estate, the Steinway. For a while it became an item of gymnasium equipment, sometimes even a yoga mat, as much as a musical instrument, and this part of the performance was geared much more to recording as a DVD than a CD. How else to explain the silences later, when Kanga was engaged in clambering over the piano, or sliding himself underneath it to examine the pedals from behind? They were funny things to do, but not played for the laughs. In his own program notes, Kanga alluded to his own physique in relation to this part of the performance. He is not a tall man, and is not built like an athlete. Presumably the routine would look rather different with another… pianist? Pianist, indeed. It may have been entirely outside conventional concert practice, but it was still scored for a pianist, admittedly one who could play upside down. Or back to front.

Or even with elbows instead of fingers. For a couple of hours tonight at the Conservatorium, we discovered music that showed us there is always new ground to be broken. None of the seven works lasted much longer than about ten minutes, but the density of notes was often such that the equivalent of considerably longer pieces was compressed into those short time spans. Individual notes were packed so closely that the effect was sometimes more like a constant tone set, as might be produced from an organ or electronic instrument, but every one meant a conscious finger movement.

There was no opportunity to drift off. Paul Evernden may have invoked the image of guitars in terms of his own musical concept, but made no attempt to make a bridge between his music and other types of music, while it has taken some years for George Benjamin’s Shadowlines to make its way to Australia, with its reworking of canons and other traditional musical structures. It just about makes it as a 21st century work, and there have been times in recent years when you may have wondered whether composers had lost their desire to experiment. Much of what we hear as new music ties itself firmly to what we have already heard in the past. Evernden and Benjamin gave us the reassurance of composers still looking to move forward. Which they did, to bring us to the work that gave its name to the entire performance, Crush, in which Alex Pozniak set Kanga free to unlock the power of the concert grand.

The Steinway remained at the end, looking unruffled, apart from the blemishes that Kanga’s attentions had left on its pristine ebony lacquer. Every one of them showed up under the stage lighting, and perhaps it was apt for it to show off its war wounds while Kanga took his thoroughly deserved applause. The success of tonight’s presentation was entirely due to his performance as a soloist, and he brought things neatly back to earth with his encore, a tribute to Peter Sculthorpe, eighty this year, and no doubt pleased to be included in tonight’s recital. New music is still as new as it has ever been.

Event details

Chronology Arts: Crush
Zubin Kanga, piano
Works by Cyrus Meurant and Alex Pozniak. Also, Benjamin, Hills, Finnissy, Molitor, Evernden.
Wednesday 29 July 2009
Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Sydney, NSW

Further links

Cyrus Meurant (MySpace)
Alex Pozniak (Chronology Arts)
Zubin Kanga (http://zubinkanga.wordpress.com/)
A year of Chronology Arts - a blog article by Alex Pozniak on Resonate


Subjects discussed by this article:

Phil Vendy broadcasts frequently on Sydney classical music radio, and has written many published articles and classical CD reviews.


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