From minor to major, the work of women composers, past and present, is a growing and important force in classical and contemporary instrumental performance. The artistic excellence of female composers has also achieved higher exposure and inclusion in very recent decades, as festival organisers and professional musicians are performing, recording, publishing and promoting newly discovered historical works and encouraging specific awards and commissions for new heroines and role models.
The ongoing commitment and initiative shown by PLEXUS musicians, Monica Curro (violin), Philip Arkinstall (clarinet) and Stefan Cassomenos (piano), as a trio and individually, is certainly creating new horizons for audiences and Australian composers.
This year’s Women in Music Festival event continued to focus on female composers, despite the limitation of genres and range of instrumentalists imposed by this lockdown climate. A festival of four themed concerts were scheduled, two highlighting the Jazz voice, starring sensual Michelle Nicolle (with Steven Grant on piano) singing standards written by women , and Liane Keegan (accompanied by Stefan Cassomenos) offering a fine tribute to Judy Garland. Co-director of MDCH, Adele Schonhardt was a welcoming solo host for the first time, warmly connecting us with this special festival.
The opening concert “Prism”, gave us five works previously commissioned by PLEXUS, all significant and deserving of further hearings. The first, Deborah Cheetham’s Insieme / Yapaneyepuk (meaning Together), was described by the composer as consisting of “dominant themes which give rise to competitive striving … we search for the common goal but are so often out of step”. From the first entrance of solo violin with high forceful long notes, we felt that drama and assertiveness, increasing with the piano’s ferocious and insistent trills and high, repeated, bare, stony octaves. A softer contrasting section revealed a gentle short theme, repeating its minority voice of gentility and harmony between more highly piercing punctuations from a torrent of tremolos, plucked strings and long chromatic runs on the clarinet. From the striving and haste, the returning gentle theme held its ground as one by one instruments gave way and faded into a separate space.
Peggy Polias’ Night Dances was an alluring and exotic set of four pieces, blending ingredients of traditional Middle Eastern modes and European folk rhythms in a fresh, contemporary setting. Darbuka featured many varied changes of colour and tone from the piano, especially when patterns shifted between registers, rising from a shadowy repeated bass ostinato. As instruments wove their melodies into the night atmosphere, they became celestial percussion instruments with high bell-like ostinatos. Drum Machine further explored percussive tones of pizzicato violin, short and sharp ostinato patterns against the clarinet broad colour scheme. The tradition and expression of the Rembetika culture was felt in Circle as the musicians added soft vocal sounds and percussive dance rhythms. Orrery closed this night time journey with broader textures, resonating slow chords, and suspensions where close intervals between instruments resolved into final unison. This was a highly colourful and stimulating piece.
Nat Bartsch composed Into the Light as a response to the fears of women who served in World War 1 as they journeyed into the unknown. Underpinning the flowing textures and dynamic contrasts, the steady, almost haunting, irregular pulse from the piano’s shadowy bass notes was ever present. Following longer, smoothly flowing journeys in melodic lines on clarinet and violin, the coda became the new destination at the journey’s end, bringing new colours and connected textures centred around the more confident steps of the opening pulse rhythm.
A very moving poem entitled No Distant Place found on a rock in a cemetery became the inspiration for Lisa Cheney’s large but still ongoing project, with two movements performed today. Long sustained notes with sparse single piano drops gently signified a loss of pulse and life. Crescendos, clusters chords on piano and long sustained trills expanded the sound in a frantic middle section, resolving into further expressive sustained long tones. The bass clarinet added a new colour to the powerful conversations and interplay between the instruments in the second movement, where further trills and chitter chatter in the dialogues became fuller statements as experimental repeated wave formations added breadth and mellowness. A final suspended floating chord shimmered mysteriously.
Premiered in 2019 at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melissa Douglas’ Shifting is a response to Alexander Calder’s suspended mobile artworks. From the delicate beginnings of floating single notes, the music developed with a free rise and fall of sharply contoured patterns until an expressive chordal piano solo developed. We felt a virtual wind blow through the mobiles as the instruments took up wider tonal gyrations with more expansive colour and energy.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Prism”, performed by PLEXUS and presented as part of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s Women in Music Festival on July 18, 2020.