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Sydney’s Seymour Group (formed in 1977) has been re-named the Sonic Art Ensemble and newly launched, opening with an engaging program, Southern Stars, focused on work coming out of Central and South America. Artistic director Marshall McGuire told his audience that the program was in part inspired by work he had encountered on his Churchill Fellowship travels in the USA, hearing the music of American Mason Bates, cuban-born Tania Leon (he’d enjoyed a whole evening of her music with its Cuban Rhumba swagger), and Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov. It was Golijov’s Passion of St Mark heard at a Sydney Festival that first alerted McGuire to the composer. The work had been conducted by Anthony Fogg, founding conductor of the Seymour Group.

Golijov is a contemporary music phenomenon, long supported by the Kronos Quartet (Yiddishbook), and more recently by the advocacy of soprano Dawn Upshaw in song settings, orchestral works and opera. The centrepiece of Upshaw’s Voices of Light (with pianist Gilbert Kalish), a collection of Messiaen, Debussy and Faure songs, is a lone, searingly beautiful Golijov composition, Lua descolorida (Moon, colourless, 1999), composed for its performers. Upshaw’s most recent CD features Golijov’s Ayre, music for soprano, small ensemble (The Andalucian Dogs) and electronics evoking the co-existence of Christian, Arab and Jewish cultures in Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in the late 15th century, as well as displaying not a little of Golijov’s own Russian-Jewish Argentinian heritage.

In Golijov’s Lullaby and Doina (2001), a folkish melody spreads gently from winds, to cello and bass to violin, notes bent klezmer style, the tone deepening in the viola vibrato, slow and heartfelt and darkening right across the ensemble. Suddenly, acceleration, clarinet and flute leading a gyspy gallop. This is a fluent, passionate and lyrical work, engaging faithfully with the idiom while slowing and stretching it out almost impossibly, without distortion, and then racing, but still sustaining a vivid sense of suspension—like dancing into that state of being where time stands still.

Like a knowing jazz improviser at work on a standard, in String Band (2002) Mason Bates starts at a remove from his bluegrass tune and works towards it. Out of long violin glides, piano stutterings matched by string pizzicato and then wailing, emerges a bluegrass tune against long cello glides and percussive pianism, until the whole thing is dancing with typical fiddle cries and yelps. But the violin soon converts to a Reichian minimalism, scaling rapidly against a pulsing piano. Long cello lines, taken up by the violin suggest langour against a tango-ish pizzicato and the percussive nulled notes of a treated piano, before slowly soaring to aetherial heights from which there is a long fall, the violin in and out of unison with its fellows, the piano gonging quietly. There is a brief surge of power as strings glide and the piano palpably vibrates. Applause for this cogent and, again, passionate performance is spontaneous and strong.

Melbourne-based composer Andrián Pertout comes from Chile, born to a Slovenian father (“There are 100,000 Dalmations in Chile”, he quips). The Slovenian heritage is important for Pertout. He asks the flautist to play the key tune from the work for us “at real speed”, explaining that it will be much slower when we next hear it. La flor en la colina (The flower on the hill, 2003-04) has the surging power of a suspenseful movie score with a driven piano underpinned by a humming cello over which flute and violin dialogue, furiously together and apart. A spacious slow movement follows, violin and rumbling piano miles apart, a lyrical reflective realm soon made turbulent, a veritable romantic wind storm that settles into a minimalist pulse before shaking itself loose again and simply stopping. This demanding work warrants more hearings, its folk origins much less prominent anchors than in the Golijov and Bates.

The visual and aural showpiece of the evening was Leon’s A la par (1986) with Bernadette Balkus on piano and Alison Eddington on a substantial array of percussion. It opens with a dance of rapid, focused piano play textured with marimba followed by a sudden transition to soft vibes and spare percussive gestures in conversation with a moody piano, a kind of stream of consciousness (like a Keith Jarrett improvisation). A sudden gearshift puts the piano in marked ostinato and percussion in flourish. A deep bass drumming introduces us to what becomes a bouncey folk motif urgently delivered by the piano. It’s here that the composer then allows the percussion to come into it’s own, Eddington turning rapidly on the spot, right hand and left busily playing different instruments in an impressive dance.

On Shooting Starts—Homage to Victor Jara (1981) is Vincent Plush’s much performed work for the Chilean composer tortured and murdered in the US-backed Pinochet coup of 1973. The work starts out with Jara’s evocation of the Andean musical world with congas, clarinet and strummed violin gradually propelling themselves away from the tune, floating, settling again. In part 2 a Jara lullaby briefly unfolds out of a slow clarinet opening. Part 3, with all save the pianist playing blocks, faces the explosive pain of Jarra’s death, his voice multiplying urgently through the speakers of small cassette players, then the whole world seeming to fade away on the buzz of a cello and receding breath of a flute.

The Sonic Art Ensemble’s second 2006 concert was a Takemitsu tribute, performed in low light amidst a collection of beautiful Isamu Noguchi paper lamps, and executed with a liberating precision. The carefully constructed program moved pleasingly from Takemitsu’s engagement with the sounds of his own culture, and a particular regard for nature, to distinctive dialogues with Western idioms out of Debussy and Messiaen. McGuire’s easy engagement with his audience, informative program notes and the ensemble’s superb playing have commenced the hard work of building a new and deservedly large audience.


Sonic Art Ensemble, Southern Stars, conductor, artistic director Marshall McGuire, cello Adrian Wallis, violin Rowan Martin, viola Thomas Talmacs, double bass David Cooper, flute Christine Draeger, clarinet Margery Smith, piano Bernadette Balkus, percussion Alison Eddington; Sydney Conservatorium of Music, April 1; A Tribute to Takemitsu; Sydney Conservatorium of Music, May 13; www.sonicartensemble.com.au

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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