Syzygy: Pagan Dances

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Published: 16th May, 2018

In the words of Syzygy’s Leigh Harrold, Claude Debussy’s innovative and expressive compositions have “allowed future generations of composers to be themselves”. For this reason, Syzygy have dedicated their 2018 Melbourne Recital Centre series to celebrating his work and legacy in the centenary since his death. The award-winning ensemble presented a program inspired by the theme “Pagan Dances”, with each piece expressing an element of dance and movement through contemporary art music. Syzygy, being the seasoned ensemble they are, executed this varied and stimulating program with effortlessness and finesse.

 Performing to a near capacity audience at the Salon, the program opened with Debussy’s Sonata for flute, harp & viola (1915), a lyrical and intimate chamber work. Flautist Laila Engle and violist Ceridwen Davies gave each note the attention it deserved, ensuring that nothing was unnecessarily strenuous. Melina van Leeuwen shone at the harp, providing the chordal foundation for this work in an assured but sensitive manner. All the musicians stood (bar the harpist), which allowed them to move with their melodic lines, and physically lean into one another, heightening the dance-like feel of the work. Each player let the others flourish when needed, and it was resultantly a generous, connected and organic performance.

 André Jolivet is also a composer of the French tradition, learning from Olivier Messiaen, who was a pupil of Debussy himself. His work Alla Rustica(1963) for flute and harp, follows the trajectory of farmers imploring the gods for rain, and their elation when rain begins to fall. Engle and van Leeuwen offered melodic suggestions, their motives becoming more intense and unrefined as the work ensured. An extravagant harp glissando signalled the falling of rain, and a gratuitous and excitable dance ensued as both the harp and the flute relished in the frenzied motifs. Both musicians, positioned side by side, provided the tension and release the work required, their somewhat primal and restless conviction a welcome contrast to their more settled performance in the Debussy.

Although it felt like a transgression from the theme of Pagan Dances, Emile Frankel’s Tracecore(2017) still embodied the inventive spirit espoused by Debussy and his contemporaries. Commissioned by Syzygy, the performance of this piece was a world premiere, featuring the original Syzygy quintet of violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano, and electronics. The first time all musicians were seated, the quintet was positioned in a semi-circle arrangement, while the electronics played by Anthony Lyons, were positioned on the outskirts. This arrangement presaged the interaction between the acoustic and the electronic instruments; the quintet acted as a unit, playing cautious and tuneful chords, which were interrupted by the distorted, somewhat consonant, “Skype-like” electronics.

 As described by Frankel in the program notes, the ensemble began to “degrade”; the musicians mimicked the chaos in the electronics by executing frantic melodic lines. At one point, the audience heard a distorted pop song play, and the quintet grooved along, the woodwind instruments tapped rhythms on their keys while literally singing the pop melody in their mouthpieces. The electronics continued to challenge the acoustic instruments, until all that was remaining was the artificial sonic world; the ensemble defeated by the relentlessness and unpredictability of the computerised noise. Overall, Frankel’s piece was a profound and fascinating listen, credited to Syzygy’s competency in realising and communicating unheard repertoire.

The concert closed with a return to the modern French tradition explored in the first half of the program, with Bruno Mantovani’s D’un Reve Pari(1999), or “Rave Party”, arguably the closest contemporary art music will ever get to nightclub music. A definite highlight of the program, the piece was complicated and enthralling. Featuring the original Syzygy quintet, with Ceridwen Davies’ viola joining to make a sextet, the piece began with each player on their own manic journey, finding transient moments of rhythmic or melodic connection. Over the span of the piece, the ensemble settled into a consistent and predictable nightclub-like groove, which was interrupted by sporadic melodic motifs played in unison. A virtuosic and gripping listen, which investigated the relationship between the chaotic and the cohesive, this performance was an exciting end to the night.

A true group of soloists, each member of Syzygy held his or her own musical authority; from Jenny Khafagi on violin and Campbell Banks on cello, to Robin Henry on clarinets and Laila Engle on flutes, to Leigh Harrold’s captivating genius on the piano. Pagan Dances showed the full extent of each musician’s expertise, but also reaffirmed their collective ability to connect and produce electrifying, thoughtful and faultless interpretations of contemporary art music.

 Madi Chwasta reviewed Syzygy’s performance at the Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, on May 11, 2018.