My modern music weekend

The search for a new home proceeds.  We found one place which we liked, even allowing for the 1.6km, 20 minute (I go more slowly since my knee disaster last year) walk to the station.  We put in an application, were told it had been sent to the owner, only to be told the next Monday that the owner had engaged two agents and let the property through the other.

Meanwhile, I have managed to fit in a few musical experiences.  D does not approve, says I should be focussing on the search, but man does not live by renting a house alone.  No need to be more miserable than necessary.

In any event, the two Messiaen concerts I went to the weekend before last were booked long before as part of my SSO subscriptions.

On the Saturday, From the Canyons to the Stars.  This was coupled with video projections.  This is a new trap for unwary players, as I discovered last year at Tristan.  If you are just in front of the computer operating the projections you will have to endure the whirring of the computer’s heat-exhaust fan.  At least Tristan had an interval so I could move.  Canyons to Stars had none: bad luck this time for Anton Enus and Jane Mathews.

There was a pre-concert talk in the hall with the orchestra present.  Despite misgivings, I went to it.  I can’t say I learnt much I didn’t know already but perhaps some people did.  For my money, it would have been better with more examples and less talking: it seemed profligate to have the orchestra sit idle for so much of the time.

There was an amusing little bit where Mr Robertson, accompanied by the pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, demonstrated the whole-tone scale version of “Doe/[Doh], a deer:”

Doh a deer

[as tweeted by the SSO]: someone has an elegant manuscript hand!]

It would be ungracious to put the boot in and confirm DR’s joke against himself that he had better keep his day job.  That’s obvious.  What is maybe less obvious is that it was the A sharp which was the most challenging to sing.  I am sure  that would be the same if I were to try it: I’m doing my best to say it’s something to do with the scale rather than DR’s singing.  My guess is because (to use the pitches in this example) C-D-E and then E-F#G# can be approached as the first three notes of two major scales stacked on top of each other, but once you get to A#, working up from the E that’s the TRITONE!

The piano part was actually more interesting than the singing because it entailed harmonic implications of a transmogrified scale.

One point Robertson made was that in Messiaen’s scales still yield euphonic/concordant chords.  (By then DR cannot have been thinking of the whole-tone scale, but rather one of Messiaen’s other modes.) That was a helpful way of explaining how Messian’s music moves between these more concordant sounds and more complicated “scrunchy” harmonies.

When I go to Wylie’s Baths, a special pleasure when the sea is up or the tide coming in is to swim close to the seaward edge.  Then the relatively warm pool water is intermittently infused with a fresh dose of cooler water from the sea.  Messiaen’s kaleidophonic harmony has something of that bracing effect.

The screened images, by Deborah O’Grady, were variable. That’s probably inevitable and trivially true given the unlikelihood that they could all be of the same standard, however assessed. When they were too distracting or imposed an unwelcome program, I simply closed my eyes or looked more down than up.  Wisely, relatively static images were chosen for the solo movements.  The images for Bryce Canyon et les rochers rouge-orange (“Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks”) did the most for me – especially the final panning shot.

I still have mixed feelings about such visual supplements.  In my youth we were scornful of the nineteenth century fetish for foisting programs on music regardless of the licence given by the composer.  What has changed, exactly?  It’s all a bit like that old chestnut of film adaptations of books.  They can be good, but I’m not keen on then festooning the book cover with pictures from the film.  Let us imagine for ourselves!

Last time the SSO did this piece, in the Verbrugghen Hall with Michael Kieran-Harvey on piano and conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, Robert Johnson played the horn solo movement from right in front of the piano which in turn had the sustain pedal down to create a kind of ad-hoc sound-board/echo box.  I rather liked that, and was sorry it was not repeated.

Les ressucités et le chant de l’étoile Aldebaran (“The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran“) was, to me, the most beautiful bit.  I just wanted to lean into the sound and hear more of it.

There were some walk-outs. That didn’t either worry or overly distract me.  It’s easy for people to find they have bitten off more than they can chew, particularly if, as this time, there is no interval. I’d rather they felt able to leave than remain squirming in their seats or glancing distractingly at their watches.

On Monday night, to Angel Place for more Messiaen played by Aimard as part of the SSO’s piano series – the Vingt Regards .   I have played just one of these myself (an easier and slower one).  I can’t remember when I have heard them live – possibly Joanne McGregor a few years back, though I can remember having heard them.  In fact, I was surprised how many of the more famous bits I actually remembered.

These got an attentive hearing.  I enjoyed them.

There were detailed program notes.  They could have been improved by some of the themes notated as Messiaen himself identifies them in his preface.

In between, I made a last-minute decision on Sunday sfternoon to take my chances for a ticket at Carriageworks for the first of the SSOs new contemporary music concerts here.  There are to be two this year, curated by Brett Dean, billed as the SSO’s first “artist in residence.” That’s a bit cute: there have been composers in residence in the past so it’s only really the title which is new.  Dean couldn’t be there.  David Robertson presided.

I needed to take my chances because by the time I tried to get a ticket on Thursday or Friday the SSO had stopped selling them and Ticketmaster’s computer booking system engaged from home earlier on Sunday refused me at the final step.  When I fronted the box office I was told that was because there were just two seats left and Ticketmaster will not accept a single booking which breaks a pair.  So I can say I got the second-last ticket. Avoiding Ticketmaster’s booking fee was an added thrill.

I hate booking fees.

The program was:

Pierre Boulez:  Derive 1
Brett Dean: Pastoral Symphony
Lisa Illean: Land’s End
Gerard Grisey: Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold

This was definitely a bargain at $35, especially as, with the (understandable, commemorative) addition of the Boulez, the originally-envisaged 70-minute concert had blown out to a concert with interval of close-to-normal length.  I’d say this inaugural series must be a bit of a loss-leader.

A bit of the gloss of Carriageworks’ funkiness came off when it came to the single-entrance general admission.  Luckily, I joined the enormous queue early and secured a good spot.

It was an exciting concert. The Boulez, built on trills, was apt and did not outstay its interest.  The Dean was fun if a bit obvious.

Lisa Illean’s piece conversely a bit obscure.  Partly that sprang from the blurry liminality which was its professed theme.  For me the music sometimes threatened to slip into the kind of contemporary music that I am less keen on, where sound events are distributed through a time which only seems to be divided into beats for the purpose of co-ordination in performance – but it didn’t quite. For one thing, unlike much such music which if it has a metre at all is ostensibly in 2 or 4, there were sections of recognizable triple time.

A subgroup within the ensemble was microtonally subtuned a little below the general A442 (Robertson’s number).  The effect was intriguing: not so much out of tune (for one thing, they were in tune with each other) as a bit distant and muted.

The big piece was the Grisey.  Soprano, Jessica Aszodi was terrific.  The slightly comic effect as she repeatedly banged her head with a tuning fork to get the pitches for her entries did not detract from this.

Postscript: to be broadcast on ABC “Classic” FM on 29 June.






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