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Published: 4th December, 2017

Andrea Keller might have been the featured composer but virtuoso percussionist and artist director of Ensemble Offspring, Claire Edwardes, ensured that this concert also continued their year-long celebration of outstanding Australian female composers by showcasing four of them, in the ensemble’s concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Salon on November 28.

Vibe Rant by the youngest composer, Holly Harrison, provided a dramatic opening. Spiky, jazz-flavoured episodes, dominated by Lamorna Nightingale’s assertive piccolo over disjointed utterances from Jason Noble’s clarinet and Claire Edwardes’ percussion, alternated with gentler, more lyrical passages for flute and percussion. A climactic ending with the clarinet at its upper extremities and the flute an insistent voice against the vibraphone was at once arresting and disturbing.

Anybody who has heard Claire Edwardes talk about music (her recent interview with Andrew Ford on Radio National’s The Music Show is well worth a visit) knows her to be an enthusiastic and highly articulate advocate for contemporary composers. When introducing the second item, Bree Van Reyk’s Light for the First Time, an intimate personal connection to the music became apparent. A member of Ensemble Offspring, Van Reyk was very pregnant when she composed this piece and imagined what it would be like for a baby to be entering the world for the first time. The mysterious world of sound began with almost inaudible breathing from the clarinet as the lights dimmed and Veronique Serret’s violin began its gentle pulsing – a monotone heartbeat. The soundscape became increasingly complex as piano and percussion joined with a succession of emerging and blending voices. As violinist and clarinetist slowly progressed down the side aisles we became enveloped by sound and increasing light. It was an inviting world of birdsong and fascinating aural exploration that greeted this baby – and us. Although some improvisation was apparent, Edwardes marked the tapering sections with sticks held high above the vibraphone.

Mary Finsterer has been a name familiar to Melbourne audiences for some time. Her 2012 composition, Silva, was written for Ensemble Offspring and appears on their just-launched CD. A percussion concerto, it is a work they have performed often and it was easy to understand why. Finsterer took inspiration from the word silva to give different impressions of the forest. Using an ABA structure, the work opens with what Finsterer describes as “an atmospheric ambience, giving a feeling of largeness through space and time. It looks out, as if to experience the forest through layers of branches and leaves, these represented by the whimsical, faster moving soft gestures of the woodwinds and string harmonics.” Shimmering percussion, a soft progression of piano chords and varied contributions from strings and flute made for an evocative opening – at once simple and complex. Subtle gongs later created a quasi-Oriental feel. After a contrasting, energetic middle section with bursts of drumming interspersed with vibraphone passages, there was a return to hypnotic tranquility. You don’t have to know the program to be captivated by this work, especially as performed by its intended exponents.

One of the great benefits of commissioning a work can be the process of collaboration between the composer and the artists who will be performing it. Such is the case with Andrea Keller’s Love in Solitude. Described as “a meditation on the eloquent thoughts presented in Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke”, it features a pre-recorded soundscape, with snatches of Rilke’s text spoken in English and German by Miroslav Bukovsky, in addition to a quartet comprising flute, clarinet, piano and percussion. The term quartet is misleading since Ensemble Offspring’s instruments provide a rich aural palette with a range of flutes and clarinets in addition to almost unlimited percussion possibilities, including Zubin Kanga’s piano. The work begins with the taped soundscape, the piano and other instruments gradually emerging. From a quiet atmosphere of undulating breathing the dynamics ebb and flow as instrumental textures shift. Rilke’s words are interspersed, sometimes clear and sometimes muffled, providing an episodic structure to the work.

Edwardes’ wish to give contemporary music a life beyond a première performance echoed in my mind. Although the Merlyn Myer Music Commission ensures a second performance in Sydney, there is no doubting the importance of recording a work such as Andrea Keller’s. Perhaps even more so since it is a departure from her usual approach as a creator of jazz and improvised music. It is an intriguing work but I found myself eager to hear it again to fully appreciate its more elusive intricacies. Hopefully, there will be many more opportunities.

In all probability nobody would have heard this work if it were not for the Merlyn Myer Fund. As MRC’s Director of Artistic Planning, Marshall McGuire pointed out at the end of the concert, what invaluable philanthropic organisations do is to provide time – time to create, time to collaborate, time to refine. In addition to the vital financial assistance, the sense of occasion was heightened by the presence of members of the Myer family in the audience. It is personal involvement such as this that nourishes Melbourne’s (and Australia’s) cultural life.