Tuesday, February 11, 2014

ACO: Dawn Upshaw, Elgar and Grieg

ACO, the Australian Chamber Orchestra present DAWN UPSHAW, ELGAR and GRIEG in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House.

UPSHAW, ELGAR and GREIG is the opening concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) for the 2014 season. The program is quite eclectic, performing John Adams, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Edvard Greig, Maria Schneider and Edward Elgar.

Selections from "John's Book of Alledged Dances", from a major composition of the same title by John Adams (1994), was the first work presented. This is a selection of five of the Dances from a ten dance cycle (one of the pieces is played twice: Judah to Ocean, bookending the selection). All of the pieces have 22 members of the string orchestra  accompanied by a recorded percussion sound track of prepared piano sounds - the prepared piano was, of course, the invention of John Cage. Originally, the prepared piano sounds were organised as loops installed in an onstage sampler, and one of the musicians triggered them on cue with a foot pedal. Evidently, it created too much suspense for Mr Adams, and so he has now created a CD of the loops, a decision he says "that allowed for significantly less anxiety during concerts".

In his notes, in the program, Mr Adams refers to a string 'quartet', creating the work, significantly, smaller than this large body of instrumentalists with the ACO. I wonder if less is more in this case. The use of the recorded prepared-piano seemed to me to be a kind of intellectual exercise, and that now the danger of miscalculation has been removed, does not have any real frisson or advantage. The most interesting and moving dance was Standchen: The Little Serenade, and because of the familiarity of the form, the second selection, Habanera, had some emotional tug. All in all, however, the work seemed to be less interesting than other work by Mr Adams. Perhaps, the broadcasting of the CD loops from speakers high above the orchestra, instead of from the floor with the orchestra, further diminished the impact of the composition experiment, and the intimacy of the sound of a 'quartet of strings' may have been lost with this larger orchestra, swamping the integrity of the work?

The guest artist, Dawn Upshaw then sang Liebes-lied (Love Song) from an early song cycle, Die Liebenden (the Lovers) - 1958-1959 - by Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara, followed by Solveig's Song by Norwegian, Edvard Greig, from the Peer Gynt score. Whether it was because of the familiarity of Solveig's Song or not, I found the singing by Dawn Upshaw of this piece the best of the concert performance - familiarity breeding contentment.

Before the interval the orchestra, led by Helena Rathbone, played the Grieg Holberg Suite, Op.40, composed in 1884 for piano solo and then orchestrated in 1885. Written swiftly on commission to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Baron Ludvig Holberg - a writer, philosopher and playwright
Grieg chose to tap into the musical style that prevailed in Holberg's day, writing a 19th century take on the Baroque dance suite perfected by the dedicatee's contemporaries, Bach and Handel." In sound the work, despite been dressed up in 18th century costume, is neither Baroque or modern, but precisely in its own time.
The nostalgic familiarity of the sounds, something that I obviously was yearning for this Sunday, seduced me into an appreciation that probably was more grateful than discerning.

After the interval, we heard the major work of the concert WINTER MORNING WALKS composed in 2011, by American, Maria Schneider, using some poems by Ted Kooster. Nine poems written by Mr Kooster during a long recovery from an illness with cancer, from some one hundred, have been the inspiration for Maria Schneider. She and Ms Upshaw are daughters of the Midwest of America and had a kindred response to the words and the music, each having, as well, survived 'battles' with that disease

In his notes in the program, Mr Jay Goodwin tells us: When Ms Schneider, set out to compose WINTER MORNINGS walk "... she wanted to incorporate more of the freedom and unpredictability of the jazz world." So, three Jazz musicians, Scott Robinson (Alto and Bass Clarinet), Jay Anderson (Double Bass) and Frank Kimbrough (Piano) joined the orchestra.
Though their parts are not completely improvised, the three jazz musicians are able to modify and embellish, speeding up or slowing down the musical flow, exploring different rhythmic possibilities, and adding a sense of spontaneity to the work. Singer and orchestra must respond and react on the fly, demanding intense focus and a collaborative spirit from everyone on stage.
The performance began, movingly, with the first poem: Perfectly Still This Solstice Morning. While not doubting the passionate connection of all the artists to this work, I gradually felt it spoke of an experience that was very personal, and that there was a kind of beatific zealotry projected by Ms Upshaw in the work, that was almost too private for her to communicate, to me, to really include me, in the journey of the poetry and music. It seemed to be of a very densely, Midwestern exclusivity, and/or personal valediction of courage, that was too private to share relaxedly. Weirdly, I became distanced by the work, rather than embraced.

The ACO with Ms Upshaw recorded the work in 2012, and it is a Grammy Award winner. This is the work's first performances in Australia.

The concert finished with Elgar's Introduction and Allegro. It was an oddly chosen work, or, maybe I was still disconcerted by the mood I had been taken to during the Schneider and was still sitting outside the concert.

Welcome back to the ACO. I miss the experiences very much. This concert, however, was the first time that I was not aroused, made curious or celebratory about the time spent with them. Agree or disagree. The orchestra have performances this week at City Recital Hall Angel Place, Tuesday (8pm), Wednesday and Saturday(7pm) and a very convenient one at 1.30pm on Friday.

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