Mythic sounds and story telling: Metropolis

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Published: 15th April, 2014

Now that the snow has settled, the nation that has music at its core has left us with memories of both familiar and freshly minted treasures, largely thanks to Olli Mustonen, who curated the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s component of the 2014 Metropolis season. Alongside diverse glittering gems by composers from Finland, so many works by composers from Australia and elsewhere have been included in this important festival of new music that there must have been something to satisfy every taste.  I reviewed just three of them.

Songs from the North – Juha Kotilainen, baritone; Joel Papinoja piano;  St Johns Southgate, April 10

Dichotomie – Aura Go, piano; Melbourne Recital Centre, April 12

Concert Champetre – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Melbourne Recital Centre, April 12

In addition to being the baritone soloist in Mustonen’s Symphony No. 1, Tuuri, Juha Kotilainen and pianist Joel Papinoja gave a repeat recital of works by Sibelius, Kuula, Ollila, Hakola and Rautavaara that they had just performed in Canberra. In the very live acoustic of St Johns Southgate, Kotilainen redefined the word ‘baritone’. His large, rich voice had the kind of bass resonance that is associated with celebrated Russian basses and seems an integral part of the passion and mythic dimension of ancient northern lands.

Although the words and translations of all the songs were helpfully provided, it was a pity that there was no description of the story underlying Rautavaara’s opera Aleksis Kivi, since the two arias that were chosen were full of atmosphere and invited closer acquaintance with the opera as a whole. Melancholy with its opening lines ‘What misery, what gloominess my soul surrounding…’ was the epitome of dark and broody despair, calling upon a wide vocal and expressive range. With greater comfort in the lower regions, Kotilainen managed to blend gentler and more falsetto upper notes to extend the compass and colour of his delivery to create some exciting dramatic effects.

The second aria, The Song of my Heart, was a lullaby, drawing upon more comforting and pastoral qualities: ‘Grove of Tuoni… far from all strife and beguiling’. A simple piano accompaniment further reinforced the themes integral to much of this recital and the festival as a whole: the centrality of nature and story to human existence.

Perhaps the most well known modern setting of William Blake’s poems is by Benjamin Britten, thus serving as an interesting point of comparison with Jukka Ollila’s settings of some of the same material. The set of the six contrasting songs called upon a wide range of Kotilainen’s considerable vocal and dramatic resources as well as his English skills. The Sick Rose with its sparse accompaniment and intense vocal line had great impact, especially coming after a jolly Laughing Song.

Following two contrasting works by Toivo Kuula, which demanded as much from young Finnish pianist Joel Papinoja as the singer, two demanding works for solo piano by Sibelius tested his virtuosity but appeared to pose no technical difficulties for this talented pianist.

 A bracket of six Sibelius songs were more Schubertian in tone and ended with an absolute show-stopper: Under fir trees on the beach, a marvellously vivid story of a boy and his mother who are lured to their death by a water sprite. Kotilainen used his beautiful, resonant voice to convey all the drama and pathos of the story to maximum effect.

The three final nature (and Finland) –inspired songs by Kimmo Hakola, which concluded the program, led to a couple of rousing encores, which Kotilainen sang with great gusto, inspiring those in the audience with origins in his homeland to welcome enthusiastically.

As the organiser of this concert, Finland-based Australian pianist Aura Go is to be congratulated on having sufficient enterprise and energy to promote such an interesting program, performed by two fine artists, with a wider audience.

Her own solo program two nights later was simply astonishing in its complexity and the demands it made on her musicality and virtuosity – not to mention her stamina. With Esa-Pekka Salonen’s work Dichotomie as the opening and final works of her program of the same name, Aura Go conceived the recital as ‘a musical journey from a joyful expression of the man-made, through the realm of mythology and spirits, and finally arriving at a resounding embrace of the laws of the natural world’. Again, this was very much in keeping with the thematic thrust of the whole new music festival.

Between the two Salonen movements, Mecanisme and Organisme, came works by composers from Australia (Sitsky), Finland (Nordgren and Rautavaara) and the USA (Cowell and Crumb). As a pianist of great intellect, Go’s programming always reflects deep thought. The thematic and musical coherence of the chosen pieces made for an illuminating journey indeed. In addition to her total commitment as a focused performer, whose every gesture seems to be part of an elastic musical continuum, her virtuosity also enabled an exploration of pretty well every sonic possibility that a piano has to offer.

Whether in the jerky energy, rhythmic shifts, flowing glissandos and lingering resonance of the first Salonen piece, or the finger numbing strumming and plucking which constitutes Cowell’s innovative The Banshee for string piano, Go made music of the highest order. It was far from being an occasion of highly intellectual, humourless seriousness either; the light touch and rippling joy to be found in Crumb’s Little Suite for Christmas and Rautavaara’s Icons were also prominent. In a piano recital of enormous variety, you could not have found a more eloquent exponent of new music.

The final concert of the festival followed hard on the heels (less than an hour in fact) of this revelatory piano recital. With a reduced number of players, the MSO played more as a chamber ensemble for much of the evening. All four works were Australian premieres and very different in character.

With Olli Mustonen conducting his own Concert champetre as the final ‘dessert’ component of the festival and the young Ilari Kaila partipating in an interview after the playing of his Cello Concerto, which opened the program, there was very much an atmosphere of personal involvement.

Articulate as both an interviewee and composer, Kaila’s commissioned work is a welcome addition to the cello repertoire and met with sustained applause. The challenge of solving what he saw as the notoriously difficult problem of balancing cello and orchestra became a source of inspiration. With Marko Ylonen as cellist, this less conventional form of concerto in one continuous movement impressed as an accessible, essentially lyrical work, with cadenzas providing dramatic highlights.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Music for Strings, Oboes, Horns and Celeste was initially composed as a ballet for his wife, the celebrated dancer Maya Plisetskaya. Loosely based on Chekov’s short story Lady with Lapdog, this abbreviated version features a variety of unusual effects, most notably some magical evocations from the celeste and suggestions of balalaika from pizzicato strings.

Some lovely playing from violin, viola and cello were amongst the pleasures of Joonas Kokkonen’s arresting work ‘…durch einen Spiegel…’ (‘through a mirror’) Metamorphosis for twelve strings and harpsichord. Referring to St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, it is a fascinating, complex work in which the harpsichord is used to ingenious effect.

A fitting conclusion to the concert and the festival Olli Mustonen’s Concert champetre was inspired by a painting of that name (possibly by Giorgione or Titian) and its connection with the wonders, great and small, of nature and human existence. Making effective use of piano and harp it draws on scenes from nature and the spirit of the Kalevala with its ancient spirits, shamans and primeval forests.

Throughout the concert, Mustonen immersed himself completely in the music that is obviously dear to him, in his enthusiasm (and possibly exhaustion), almost toppling into the orchestra at the end of the final work. Always attentive, always passionately involved, he conducts with his heart as well as his head. You could not help but feel that it was a case of ‘From Finland, with Love’.