PLEXUS: Phosphorescence

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Published: 6th March, 2019

PLEXUS has established a reputation for entrepreneurial vision coupled with innovative concerts featuring outstanding Australian artistic talent. In Phosphorescence they fully justified their reputation and excelled themselves in their quest to make contemporary classical music engaging and exciting.

Among an impressive lineup of guest artists, Kit Webster was the first to dazzle with his inventive light installation. Members of the audience entered a darkened Primrose Potter Salon to find an unusual seating arrangement where video projections played over the short wall near the entrance and lighting equipment was spread along a platform behind the rows of seats. Phosphorescent bursts in gradations of black and white swiftly emerged and subsided in complex configurations behind the instrumentalists. This was only the beginning of an extensive range of stunning visual effects that changed with each musical work, becoming more colourful as the evening progressed. Abstracted images of the performers as they played were integrated into the constantly moving trippy swirl.

The core trio of Monica Curro (violin), Philip Arkinstall (clarinet) and Stefan Cassomenos (piano) opened musical proceedings with the world premiere of Thomas Green’s Antique Dance Variations, the only work on the program commissioned by PLEXUS. It is a 15-minute amalgam of classical, romantic and contemporary dance music with a solo violin introducing a theme and variations and maintaining a classical style of expression. The piano added more fragmented, melismatic passages, while the clarinet hinted at a klezmer style. The dance element was heightened by shades of Piazzolla and there was plenty of tension to be had as all three musicians wove in and out in true plexus style. The work concluded with the clarinet reaching dizzying heights before an abrupt final trio descent.

British composer Gavin Bryars is possibly best known for his 1971 work Jesus’ Blood Never Failed me Yet, but he has made his mark with numerous important compositions and collaborations. The trio was joined by Hannah Coleman on featured recorder, Damien Eckersley on bass and percussionist Brent Miller on bowed vibraphone for Sub Rosa. Bryars calls his eight-minute work “an extended paraphrase of and comment on” a favourite piece of his: Throughout by Bill Brissell. Winds and strings combined in a beautifully hushed slow progression of chords against a repeated three-note rising arpeggio from the piano. The central role of the recorder was performed with beautifully controlled serenity by Coleman to create something truly ethereal.

Because the new work commissioned from Kate Moore had to be deferred, it was replaced by Spin Bird (2008), a short work for solo piano inspired by Bach’s novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The composer compares the bird’s desire to improve the art of flying and diving with the performer who “demonstrates virtuosic technique modulating at speed through all major and minor keys in a rapidly evolving passage”. Cassomenos gave a focused account of Moore’s repetitive, subtle and demanding work; it was a convincing display of the mastery of technique that the composer had in mind. In this piece and throughout the concert Cassomenos also displayed his gift for drawing meaning from every note, no matter how simple or repetitive.

There was more subtlety and technical assurance on show when flautist Eliza Shephard and cellist Michelle Wood joined the trio, bass and percussionist for Music of Amber (1981) by American composer Joseph Schwantner. A 20-minute work in two parts, Wind Willow, Whisper and Sanctuary, it follows a poetic program celebrating nature, evoking ancient times and culminating in “the music of amber”. It is complex and full of fascinating effects as instruments play in different combinations. While there are climactic moments, the music is more often slow moving and mysterious. Brent Miller’s drum work was particularly impressive and, along with the piano, would have been a major factor in enabling this highly professional ensemble to play without a conductor, unlike many other ensembles. All performers drew in listeners by communicating a shared feeling of rhythmic pulse and acute sense of pitch. The latter was particularly important in the following work with its use of quarter-tones.

I last heard a work by Australian composer Georges Lentz at the Melbourne Recital Centre in one of the best concerts of 2018: “Celebrating Brett Dean”. It concluded with a gripping and deeply moving performance of Jerusalem (after Blake), an elegy for the victims of flight MH370. His Nguurraa (meaning “light weight” in the Indigenous language of the Ngiyampaa people) is a link in the chain of a much larger work, Mysterium, in which Lentz is almost trying to achieve the impossible as he attempts “to defy the one-directional flow of time”. His use of violin, cello, clarinet, piano and percussion – mainly in the form of a set of gongs – did conjure up a sense of the celestial timelessness of the music of the spheres and “the extreme loneliness sense of existential fragility found in the Australian Outback”. Whistling and feather strokes from the string players, flutter tonguing and trills from the clarinet, piano notes with sustained reverberation or none at all, and sudden crescendos and diminuendos were only a small part of the means by which Lentz’s achieved his mystical ends.

An unexpectedly long program ended with what was the most dramatic work: Coming Together (1971) by American composer Frederic Rzewski. It would also have been a major drawcard for the large audience as actor Gerry Connolly joined all the instrumentalists to recite a text taken from a letter written by Sam Melville, a political prisoner killed in the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion. It is a minimalist score with the text being read repeatedly, each time beginning at a slightly later point. But we never do hear that final word: “life”. Considered by some as one of the great minimalist masterpieces, it requires 20 minutes or so of unflagging concentration and stamina as fast sequences build tension. It is the kind of piece that specialists in this musical genre usually tackle; in this case it was a team of expert musicians. After a climactic buildup of speed and volume there was a sudden change of pace with a drawn out quasi pealing of bells and a final reverberating note. A long, long silence, as spellbound listeners pondered the word that never came, was followed by enthusiastic applause for a remarkable achievement.

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Heather Leviston attended the PLEXUS concert “Phosphorescence” at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon, on March 4, 2019.