Melbourne Recital Centre, April 20th

A grand finale to Melbourne’s Metropolis New Music Festival, Shadows showed off the wealth of music that comes under the festival banner. It also made me wish that I’d had time to go to a few more of the numerous other concerts across the festival’s two weeks.

British composer and conductor Thomas Adès both programmed and conducted the concert, showing himself to be both versatile and daring in his approach to new music.  Adès’s works are almost approaching mainstream in both his native England and overseas. While maybe not so well-known to Australian audiences, the opportunity to hear these works conducted by the composer was not to be missed. The program was tantalising in its variety, juxtaposing the more conventional orchestral forces with solo cello and large chamber configurations, and Adès was totally at home on the podium.

Niccolo Castigliano’s Inverno In-ver was an intriguing study in the the variety one can achieve with a limited soundscape. In this case, the limiting factor was pitch – all eleven movements were concerned with the high and tinkly. The variety of sounds produced (if occasionally a little taxing on the ears) was mesmerising, a wonderful study in colour and orchestral texture. Each movement felt exactly right in its length and scope, and the work left the impression of having been treated to an exquisite tasting-platter of sound.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Kai for solo cello and ensemble dragged the audience out of this dream-like state into a harsher reality. The cello was constantly pitted against the full force of the ensemble (including bass guitar and drum kit), forcing soloist Steven Isserlis to respond with a dramatic and occasionally forced musical vocabulary. Isserlis executed the solo part with incredible sincerity and flawless technique, though the piece as a whole might have benefited from a little more contrast in colour and instrumentation.

Isserlis’s solo performance that followed the interval was breathtaking in a totally different way. Four movements of Gygory Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages for solo cello, the miniatures were delicious in their economy of gesture and idea. Isserlis’s performance captured this beautifully, demanding absolute attention of the audience as he captured even the most delicate of gestures. It was a pity that this segment of the concert seemed to be over too quickly – placed directly after the interval it took the audience the first few of these short movements to settle down and stop rustling! I could quite happily have listened to the whole work; the performance was one of the rare moments where it felt like soloist and work were perfectly matched.

While this may have been my high point of the concert, I was still suitably impressed with what followed. One of the winners of this year’s Cybec composition competition, Lachlan Skipworth showed that the younger generation of Australian composers are continuing to produce new and interesting works. His piece Afterglow, while not really resembling the piece described in the program note, was nevertheless refined and a pleasure to listen to. Framing a central piccolo solo (played by Andrew Macleod with his usual precision), the work showed an economy of gesture and interesting attention to the details of colour.

Adès, having shown the same enthusiasm for every piece on the evening’s program, finished the concert with three dances from his first opera Powder Your Face. Lively and catchy as one can be while still staying in the new music vein, the dances rounded out a spectacular evening (and I am told festival), and were certainly a crowd-please. For me – I’ll certainly give the opera a listen very soon, but failed to be quite as revved up by the dances as I thought I would be. Maybe, after reading the opera synopsis in the program, I wanted a little more drama. But then new music never intends to please universally, the challenge to confront the unknown is far more important.

Bring on Metropolis 2014, next time I will make sure to attend more!