Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Some things leave you speechless

Perth Festival review: Cat Hope, Speechless ⋅
Sunset Heritage Precinct, February 28 ⋅
Review by Laura Biemmi ⋅

So often, words fail us. The tragedies of our time can leave us stricken, without words, struggling to comprehend the state-sanctioned monstrosities before us. Australian society has a lot to answer for, points out Cat Hope in the program notes for her new opera, Speechless. She highlights the Australian government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, its lack of respect for our Indigenous communities, and its inability to recognise the plight of women in Australia, lamenting that ‘these are groups who, as a result of being spoken for by others, are left without a voice.’

Hope’s response to these crises that plague our nation was to create an opera which received its premiere at the Perth Festival this week.

Visually, Speechless was inescapably captivating. The audience were placed in curved rows around the oval performance space, giving the uncomfortable impression of spectatorship, as if watching a football game. Thick strips of fabric dangling from the ceiling, reminiscent of bar-graphs detailing horrific statistics, were pulled down and tightly wrapped around the principal performers, the set itself becoming an oppressive actor on stage. Matthew Adey’s lighting design included pole-like lights suspended from the ceiling to just above the floor, acting as both structural guideposts for the actions of the performers and as physical accompaniments to the Australian Bass Orchestra. In one particularly striking display in the third act, the red lights overhead drifted glacially from the back of the space near the orchestra, to the front of the room, menacing in its hue and bathing all in its light.

Four soloists stand on chairs with a group of black clothed chorus members clustered around them
The chorus turn their attention to the wordless singing of the soloistss Photo Frances Anrijich

Stripped of their words, the performers onstage connected with their audience in a more visceral manner. Sage Pbbbt was compelling in her guttural cries and wordless gasps; Karina Utomo’s aria of screams was deeply moving; the percussive vocalisations of Caitlin Cassidy were equally virtuosic and unearthly in their execution, and the mourning that pervaded the beauty of Judith Dodsworth’s voice was only enhanced by the lack of text. Such vocalisations were deeply moving, and were felt on a level I had never experienced before in a concert setting. The choir, made up of members from five separate community choirs, were effective in their role as ‘citizen’s commentary’, drifting through the space and connecting (or not) with the principal performers. However, I felt there was space in the opera for the choir to have a more prominent role as the members of Australian society. Some ‘numbers’ involving the principal performers began to feel familiar towards the end of the work.

Much like the performers onstage, the Australian Bass Orchestra communicated with their listeners in a more bodily fashion. The notes from the bass orchestra–consisting of low winds, brass, strings, electronics and percussion–could be felt reverberating through the feet of the audience, settling uncomfortably in the stomach. However, such a human, bodily effect was juxtaposed harshly with moments of metallic, mechanical rage, particularly in one intense moment scored for ‘rock band’ and strobe lighting. This clash between bodily and mechanical elements served to remind audiences of the inter-relatedness of the two; the horrors of our time might be systemic and seemingly untouchable, but they are essentially man-made.

Aaron Wyatt conducts the Australian Bass Orchestra. Photo Toni Wilkinson

Such bodily reactions to Speechless, are important. Hope drew inspiration for the opera from the 2014 Human Rights Commission Report The Forgotten Children: National Enquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. Reports such as these filled with clinical figures of statistics and descriptions of conditions have not been effective at ending our current stance on asylum seekers, nor on any social issue plaguing Australia. Connecting on a level that surpasses pure intellect might be the next best option. Speechless was overwhelming; an experience so forcefully immersive, it was impossible to ignore. And that’s exactly what Australian society needs to experience.

Speechless continues until March 3.

Picture top: Karina Utomo’s aria of screams. Photo Toni Wilkinson

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audience and dancers move together
Dance, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Cross-cultural collage

Perth Festival review: Beijing Dance Theatre, Dancenorth Australia, Jun Tian Fang ensemble,Genevieve Lacey, Gideon Obarzanek & Max de Wardener, One Infinity ⋅
His Majesty’s Theatre,  February 7 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Concert dance performance is a tricky beast. Dance productions tend to use recordings. If live musicians are present, they tend to be either peripheral, or fully incorporated into the scenography as physical performers in their own right. One Infinity is a bit of both, and is consequently uneven; enjoyable but flawed.

Director Gideon Obarzanek positions us in two opposite seating banks surrounding a rectangular strip running left to right. Five musicians are located at the edges of the strip. Dancers (from Beijing Dance Theatre and Dancenorth Australia) only enter the central area twice for what are the most successful sections, with the dancers and instrumentalists literally sharing the space. Otherwise the dancers are located in the seating banks, with a key dancer whom audiences are encouraged to physically echo being seated at the very top. The main group of dancers are however two levels down from this. It is therefore not possible to focus on any of the numerous elements within One Infinity. When each audience group joins the elevated performer in weaving our arms within fairly simple movements, the idea seems to be to just “go with the flow” within a dispersed and encompassing vision. The relationships between the live instrumentalists, electronic musical interludes, and the dance however vary from the banal to the opaque.

Genevieve Lacey’s breath-takingly subtle recorder playing. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

The problem may lie in the musical composition by Max de Wardener and Genevieve Lacey. Lacey is a breath-takingly subtle recorder virtuoso. Here she performs opposite four Chinese classical musicians from the Jun Tian Fang music ensemble. Three play a rarefied form of horizontal unbridged Chinese harp or zither, the guqin (Wang Peng, Zhuo Ran, Zhang Lu), and a fourth is on bamboo flute (Xiao Gang). Peng is the guqin master who trained Ran and Lu. He performs two exquisite solos which showcase classical modes of string bending, sharp and light attacks, and so on. His acolytes perform one additional solo each. Ran plays like a slap bass guitarist, his contribution pushing the instrument into harder, more extreme outcomes. Lu by contrast has a slightly differently tuned instrument, her notes having a beautifully microtonally frayed edge, each tending to hang and resonate into vibrating fractures. While these younger performers do indeed also play with Lacey, their more striking solos rest largely outside of the larger structure.

The electronic elements, verging into noise at times, feel like they come from a different composition. There is some cross-fertilization as Lacey’s extraordinary, heavy and wooden sounding bass recorder echoes (and may have been sampled) within the electronic accompaniment, but the music by and large exists as discrete blocks.

Obarzanek consequently struggles to provide a substantive choreographic dramaturgy. The section on the floor where the dancers begin by shaking, bouncing, then sawing at the space as though swimming, finally breaking out of lines and across the strip, is the most interesting and the only section where one can actually watch the dancers while also observing the extraordinary musicians. The rest of the choreography however reinvents some of the oldest clichés about Oriental and/or mystical movement. Dancers are seated behind each other with arms intertwined like Hindu gods, or fold in and out around a central point like a blossoming rose. It is attractive enough, and Obarzanek wants it simple, but it is frankly unexciting and does not compare to other instances of similar choreography by say Akram Khan let alone experts in Indian classical dance.

It is perhaps significant that Obarzanek uses the mandala as his inspiration, a spiritual visual motif associated principally with Buddhism and especially its Tibetan mystical forms. The guqin however has traditionally been associated with the Confucian/Daoist scholarly class of the Chinese Imperial court and was originally not even intended for performance, rather being a personal form of meditation and contemplation. It is therefore not surprising that this kind of music, which calls for extremely focused attention in the listener, does not blend well with the more visually florid motifs of the mandala.

Members of the Jun Tian Fang music ensemble playing the guqin. Photo Sarah Walker

One Infinity is therefore a curate’s egg. The guqin performances are quite simply jaw-dropping as well as being very modern in expression despite the long classical tradition to which Peng and his students are heir. I would moreover happily go again to hear Lacey’s beautiful, spiralling recorder. Parts of the choreography are strong, and the audience interaction is well handled. But the question of what this show actually is has not been fully addressed. Is it a concert, in which the dance functions as marginalia? Is it a show about audience participation and immersion? Is it a meditative choreographic experience in which the music functions as the accompaniment but not focus (this seems closest to the end result)? Or is it something else again? One Infinity includes superb elements, but it does not gel.

One Infinity continues until February 10.

 

Pictured top: dancers and audience move together in One Infinity. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

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Classical music, Music, News, Reviews

Beyond the bombast

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, “Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Dvořák’s New World” ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, November 16 ⋅
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ⋅

Australian symphony orchestras only rarely premiere new work. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra‘s premiere of Lachlan Skipworth’s Hinterland was therefore an anticipated and revealing event. Australia’s orchestras are conservative in the precise meaning of the term: their aim is to conserve a musical tradition which began in 17th century Europe and which arguably reached its apotheosis at the start of the 20th century. This does not imply slavish reproduction, but rather an alternative definition of modernism where progress is defined less in terms of radical new discoveries and more in terms of reworking known forms into new configurations.

Employing these criteria, Skipworth’s Hinterland was a triumph. It is a rousing, fundamentally neo-romantic work. Melodramatic, rhythmically strong crescendos and rattling bass kettle drum moments define its structural units, this kind of material bookending both the first movement, and then exploding out in the finale. The WASO’s placement of this premiere alongside Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 From the New World (1893) and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor (1868) was instructive in this sense because, despite popular terminology, WASO and its peers are less committed to properly Classical composition, and instead tend to highlight the emotionally rousing approach which the Romantics developed in 19th century Europe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, quite a bit of Hinterland feels rather like one of John William’s works (Star Wars, etc), a composer well known for producing a modern, digestible form of neo-romanticism. Skipworth’s materials are a bit darker, and certainly there is a tendency to dwell in the deeper tones of the orchestra more than what Williams’ lighter touch tends towards, but there is a clearly shared approach to blending between the two.

Hinterland is basically a three part work. It starts dirgy and heavy with massed strings and ends in much the same place only much more aggressively and powerfully. As Skipworth puts it, the “dense chordal mass of the opening returns to build a powerful climactic peak.” For those such as myself, who dream of finding the radical potential of that wonderfully conservative machine that is the orchestra, I did find some such elements in the interregnum. Hinterland is essentially a piece of what was once called “program music”: material designed to evoke a narrative about how the landscape changes over time. The middle section relates how “shimmering strings capture sparks of [morning] sunlight in shallow rock pools.” Because of this, there is true attention to not just rhythm and harmony, but sound qua sound. The sharp clack of the rocks briefly used by the percussionists, the rich, colouristic quality of the horn peals, and other gestures, come out here and rest in their own sonic world. The audience is encouraged to listen and attend to the specificity of these modest, subtle but wonderfully beautiful acoustic events. For those such as myself whose allegiance lies more with Morton Feldman and Xanis Xenakis than John Williams or Georges Bizet (whose work is also evoked here), it was deeply disappointing that the most exciting element of this performance came across as little more than a diversion from the true melodramatic focus of this neo-romantic work. Still, of course, different strokes for different folks, and while the WASO certainly could have used a lighter touch, Skipworth’s challenge for the performers was well handled.

Much the same was true of the program overall. Pianist Andrey Gugnin played Grieg’s extremely varied and at times fiendishly complex Piano Concerto from memory, ably supported by the orchestra. For my taste, the final solo piano section is by far the most interesting, the harmonic richness of the rest of the work here constrained into a very jazzy, finger-plucked section that sits well amongst piano works of the late twentieth century.

Dvořák’s New World symphony concluded the program in a commemoration of the foundation of WASO, which began with a performance of this piece in 1928. Dvořák’s composition is an intensely interesting one which I do not know well. It is at times sparse, with a real sense of urban drive, recalling what America once represented to nineteenth century Europe: the “New World.” There are hints of (now considered ill-informed) attempts to evoke American Native chants (taken from unreliable sources of white American poetry about Hiawatha), of folk-like music (Dvořák’s own speciality in his native Czechoslovakia), of calmed and modified jazz and African-American music, as well as the sweeping Romantic motifs that tended to define music of the period as a whole. Dvořák apparently found the US both scary and bracing, and the music certainly evokes this.

There was a sense that WASO was if anything too Romantic in its interpretation. Having hit the crescendos and crashing strings so early, it was not clear where the orchestra had to go when it came to the finale. But then to some degree this is the point of such music. It is composition with the volume turned up to 11 out of 10 (to quote Spinal Tap). The aim is for an ever more overwhelming explosion of musical force and its corresponding affective impact. If the concert was not quite able to deliver here, this was, I would suggest, at least as much a consequence of the musicological bombast which WASO bravely broached as it was that of the performers. Skipworth’s own contribution then can only be read as a canny compromise. He neither rejects these musical approaches, nor does he slavishly devote himself to them. I look forward to his next endeavour.

Pictured top: Asher Fisch conducts the WA Symphony Orchestra.

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