MSO: City Life

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Published: 21st May, 2016

The 2016 Metropolis New Music Festival celebrates New Music in a metropolis teeming with concerts every day of the year, many of them dedicated to music which is considered “New”, although this term is fairly loosely applied. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert, City Life was both gritty and refined, befitting a berth last Saturday night in the Melbourne Recital Centre. Directed by American conductor and Grammy-award winner Robert Spano, the MSO delivered an inspiring evening of music composed between 1995 and the present.

Opening with Korean composer Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti, Robert Spano and the MSO were clearly at home with the performance of highly detailed and conceptual music, as Spano brought the ensemble together with flair and passion. Palimpsest, the opening movement presented the listener with many moments of stasis, as pure intervals unadulterated by vibrato in the strings were over-laden and interrupted by a single piercing piccolo and brassy honks. Despite some frenzy there were playful moments too evidenced in Leigh Harrold’s piano skipping along to a snare drum. This concoction of unsettling nervousness continued in the second movement, an eerie nocturne which demanded flair and restraint from the orchestra in equal measure. Brett Kelly and the muted brass ensemble were superb and provided a firm footing to the violins, confident in their leadership by Sophie Rowell.

Moving without pause into the final movement, Urban Passacaglia mingled eight incisive chords in the brass with virtuosic violin pizzicato. This loudest movement of the three provided excitement from unusual places, bringing to our attention the jarring nature of one instrument setting off the rest.

The technical agility of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra continued with Alex Turley’s Cybec commission, city of ghosts. This confident and charming 21 year old has an already developed musical language, here depicting the deserted landscape of a city, of abandoned skyscrapers and haze. MSO’s Cybec 21st Century Australian Composers Program is made possibly every year by the generosity of Roger Reardon who was widely applauded on the night, (presumably even more so due to recent funding cuts to the Australia Council).

After a slowish development there was a clearing of the haze, announced with small bells and close harmonies. Associate Principal cellist Rachel Tobin played her exposed solo with yearning and pitch-sure execution enveloped in a warm tone. The piece ends with an audible exhalation from the brass, a not-without-hope gesture as the breath finally leaves the deserted city.

If the first half was abstract in ideas, the second was illustrative, with many defining sounds of Los Angeles and New York.

Michael Daugherty’s Sunset Strip for Orchestra recreates another musical landscape based on the endless two-lane road in downtown Los Angeles. His music inspires a temporal journey from 1950s through to 1990s America with all of its earthiness and cultural signposts. Daugherty intends the piece as “music in motion, in which I put the performer and the listener in the driver’s seat.”

Heavy doses of American nostalgia from another Grammy award-winner Daugherty were brought to riveting effect by the placing of antiphonal trumpets on either side of the stage. A game of musical catch which was brilliantly synchronised by trumpeters Geoffrey Payne and Shane Hooton. The live acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall further amplified these players, recreating the heady days of the Ratpack, Sinatra, nightclubs and dives. A snippet of bossa nova and some heavy beats from the percussion further added to the energy.

Steve Reich’s City Life (1995) is an ingenious work, and recreates the sounds of New York using non-musical sounds made practical by the use of the sampling keyboard. Thus the effect throughout the five-movement work is of a genuine sense of what makes

New York, New York – Reich himself recorded myriad samples from in and around his hometown, from car horns, subway chimes, car alarms and heartbeats. These are used prominently from the get-go. In the opening Reich samples speech; the words “Check it out” fascinate the listener with repetitive use as he isolates the rhythm of those words, which are then adopted throughout the orchestra. A pile-driver sample in the second movement causes anxiety, as the machine starts slow and accelerates. The most human of sounds, a heartbeat defines the fourth movement as a warm pulsation from the bass drum in an otherwise sparse textural plane. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, reduced in size gave an insightful and agile performance of this evocative work, sending the audience out into the night, to experience some more city life of their own.


 The picture of conductor Robert Spano is by Chris Lee.