Sunday, November 11, 2018

A superb night championing imaginative Aussie composition by the ANAM musicians in Celebrating Brett Dean at the Melbourne Recital Centre

How often do we get to hear an all-Aussie program of symphonic music on the concert stage? Unforgivably, rarer than hen’s teeth. But on Friday night, a deluxe treat consisting of four works by Australian composers - Richard Meale, Brett Dean, George Lentz and Lisa Illean - was offered to the public in a beautifully curated and compact concert at Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elizabeth Murdoch Hall. 

Brett Dean and the ANAM Orchestra
Acclaimed Australian composer and former artistic director of the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), Brett Dean, was back in Melbourne to conduct the latest talent that oozes from the South Melbourne academy as well as guest players. Championing home-grown music, Dean brought something new to experience. In the end, it seemed that even the most conservative classical ears might easily give up Mozart and Beethoven, together with a shortlist of other concert-favoured names, and give themselves to music that challenges and charms our acoustic sensibilities. 

It wasn’t only an all-Aussie program that connected the works, all four on the list shared so much as far as orchestral imagination, exquisite sonic depth and impressionistic visions were concerned. To the ear, absent were formally structured patterns of melody and rhythm. This was a captivating and dissonant music that dispersed amorphously, as a puddle does, and infiltrated the air with a long afterglow.

The evening began with Clouds now and then, a short composition by the late Richard Meale. It was written in 1969 but spans time effortlessly with its extraordinary picture-building music based on a 17th century haiku by Matsua Basho. Fragility and the beauty and eeriness of nature at night characterise the work, creating a distant contemplative realm. Watching the large orchestra of more than 80 ANAM musicians focused on producing sounds of glorious delicacy in itself was rewarding. Percussion features large, including wonderful dark and hollowed croaking but the lightest brass playing, yielding the most sublime transparency, was particularly impressive.

Dean’s Australian premiere of his 23-minute song cycle, From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction), written with Canadian librettist Matthew Jocelyn, followed. Based on key moments in Hamlet and Ophelia’s fraught and oppressive relationship, its 7 parts give away something of the kind of atmosphere Dean established in his celebrated recent opera, Hamlet, commissioned by Glyndebourne Festival Opera and premiered in 2017 before receiving its Australian premiere at this year’s Adelaide Festival. 

A thrilling and, at times, distant dynamism  in the orchestral writing - including some hair-raising metallic string playing - underpin vocals that deliver a range of expression from fluid lyricism through to haunting echoes and declamatory force.

Brett Dean, Lorina Gore and Topi Lehtipuu
Compelling, confident vocals from Australian soprano Lorina Gore and youthful warmth from Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu - backed by fine musicianship - blended in a thoroughly focused enactment. Gore, who sang the role of Ophelia in Adelaide, particularly stood out for her brilliant flexibility and clarity. Gore’s crazed flights and angular shifts came in a performance of great physicality that, altogether, exposed Ophelia’s disturbed psychological state. Lehtipuu depicted something of a chivalrous Hamlet, mildly authoritative but often needing more flesh on his golden tone. When Gore took leave of the stage in a trance-like state as the work came to a hushed expiratory conclusion, the feeling was that, in its entire breadth, Dean had brought poetic sound to Shakespeare’s verse in a gripping dramatic dream sequence. 

After interval, Lisa Illean’s Land’s End, composed in 2015, received its first Melbourne performance. Just over 10 minutes in length, the work’s sensitive connection to visual art is expressed in music of seductive and evocative beauty. Illean states in the program notes, “...the ensemble is conceived as one instrument which glows and breaths from the inside.” It seemed realised genuinely so in the reduced orchestra of around 20 players. Illean used the ocean surface as the framework for exploration and the resultant music was one to bask in. Free-moving, wind-blown and swaying in unexpected frequency, Land’s End played like a mediation for one lying horizontal on a lilo at sea in complete isolation without fear. 

The final piece for the evening was George Lentz’s Jerusalem (after Blake), composed between 2011-14 for orchestra and electronics and brought together around 80 musicians on stage and at the rear of the hall. Inspired by William Blake’s foreboding poetry and artwork, Lentz’s 25-minute composition draws on the apocalyptic elements and fall of man that Blake wrote about and questions how far or different our contemporary world is from it. It concludes with a reverent and eerie homage to the passengers of the ill-fated flight MH370 who never made contact to their love ones in gentle brass sounds played via mobile phone from the back of the hall.

Lentz’s extraordinarily orchestrated work is packed with colossal energy and was released in a rich sound-enveloped experience on Friday night in its Melbourne premiere one might easily ponder. After rising from distant foghorn-evoked brass and building with punctuated intensity with oriental gongs, strings begin a high-pitched screech before the brass fades back into the distance to make a bracing opening. 

The score makes multiple transformations that often seem to mimic sounds often ignored in our urban and industrial environment, like the sound of a train passing in the distance and the white noise of modernity. Especially remarkable is the way in which Lentz disguises his musical source and creates sounds that belie their origin - violins that whistle like woodwind and double basses that power the babble of far-off voices. Further along, the frenzied, theatrical and pockets of utmost delicacy are captured strikingly by Dean’s apparent enthusiasm for the work. Gratifyingly, Dean’s team of musicians never seemed to stray from playing with excellence, no doubt sharing the privilege of performing this gripping and thrillingly communicative composition. 

When the introduction to four vivid works from four of our county’s great modern composers was over, the only thing that felt missing was the sense that the concert platform can do so much more in exposing audiences to music that pours from Australian creative minds. I’m optimistic we will see this kind of experience again soon. 

Celebrating Brett Dean
Part of the Series: Australian National Academy of Music
Melbourne Recital Centre
9th November, 2018

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