Tequila disguised as a slice of lemon; musicians in cages; Bach in the dark.
Who says Tasmania doesn’t know how to party?
The Museum of Old and New Art ravished its patrons with sound, colour, taste, and wine in Synaesthesia+ – a full weekend of music and feasts. Greeted at the door by theatrically dressed ladies offering pink Sichuan pepper macarons, it was obvious that this would be an unconventional – and unforgettable – experience.
The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra opened the weekend in the spacious Nolan Gallery with the world premiere of Matthew Hindson’s ambiguous Resonance, before being joined by violinist Richard Tognetti for Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. The lighting immediately embodied the concept of synaesthesia, with blue helping to portray the more discretely disturbing aspects to this tormented work, and red to exaggerate the jabbing and murderous rages. The orchestra drifted between piercingly and thunderously loud with the audience seated close enough to feel it. Tognetti gave his first of many outstanding performances over the weekend, swaying to his music in Converse-style sneakers.
Recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey was a real highlight of the event. She first appeared solo in the atmospheric Void, with audience members gathering on antique armchairs and nursing glasses of wine. All heads turned for her abrupt beginning, and for the next 40 minutes the only sign of life in the near-paralysed audience was an occasional ‘wow’ from awestruck listeners. Under a spotlight in surrounding darkness, she seemed a true goddess. Her eerie accompaniment rumbled through the stone walls, creating an other-worldly feel before drifting away into nothing. The spell was broken with the first am-I-supposed-to-clap-now applaud. Lacey’s later appearance with the TSO for Kats-Chernin’s magical Bach Reinventions showcased the recorder player’s technical ability through rapid passages, and her apparent lack of physical need to breath.
To my delight, Bach was a real focus on the program and was brought to life in various museum spaces. ‘Black Bach’ provided both a unique rendition of Bach chorales, and an incidental tour of the Barrel Room where Moorilla Estate’s wine is stored. Perhaps inappropriate to compare the acoustics to a church, they were certainly parallel in resonance and power. I scored a standing position not a metre away from the sonorous voices of the TSO Chorus Extreme under the direction of June Tyzack, and with an audience capacity of 40 it was almost a private performance in total darkness. Spitting and slapping sounds were included.
New York-born cellist Michael Goldschlager took Bach to the Void. Performing movements from the solo cello suites, the sardine-packed audience gave him some of the loudest cheers of the night, proving that despite the contemporary setting and works on the program, Bach’s older works are still very, very loved.
It was a rare opportunity to hear Richard Tognetti’s solo Bach immediately after Goldschlager’s, and comparing the two performances found the former to be less overt in expression, and the latter taking a far lighter feel. Major point of difference: Richard Tognetti was caged. Not metaphorically – he really was performing from inside a cage. The Nolan Gallery wall behind him was projected with oscilloscopic lighting by audio-visual artist Robin Fox, which was designed to respond directly to the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin.
Fox also had an interactive installation in the Library Gallery named Colour Organ. The seizure-inducing light display was hooked up to a keyboard and corresponded to the notes being played. Different strobing patterns shined reflectively through draped sheets of clear plastic and were far more mesmerising than I care to admit.
Furthering the spirit of synaesthetic exploration, Karen Kasey’s interactive visual experiments used devices to measure the brainwaves of musicians as they performed (no, it didn’t flat line). In her performance with Synaesthesia+ curator and shakuhachi player Brian Richie, Kasey tried to tune in with Ritchie to create mutual brainwave interactions which were visible on a large screen. While the experiment wasn’t well explained, the kaleidoscope-like visuals of the pair’s brain activity made for a hypnotic accompaniment to Ritchie’s improvised shakuhachi meditation. And, hey – how often do you get to understand what’s going on in a musician’s head?
Kasey’s futuristic technology was also hooked up to master classical improviser David Dolan and four young string players from the Australian National Academy of Music. Accepting requests from the audience (well, requests of key such as A major and B minor), the performers improvised with intense communication as their brainwaves were live-streamed for us to watch intrusively.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase Tasmanian talent, the TSO Chorus naturally made a few appearances and took advantage of MONA’s incredible architecture in the process. Commencing their set in the Nolan Gallery with thigh slapping and nose pinching Zauberspruche op. 78 by Kratochwil, the choir rather randomly ventured up nearby stairs, clutching candles and enticing us to follow. Goldschlanger’s solo cello sung in the distance with Tavener’s enigmatic Svyati, and choir members lead us up a level to where he was playing. As they gathered by his empty case, they positioned their candles on the floor around it in a bizarre ritual before congregating on a large metal stairwell to sing Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium. The chorus eventually ended up on the lowest level of the museum, where audiences could look down on where they stood under the colourful projection of a stained glass window.
TSO Principal Timpanist Matthew Goddard made peculiar use of the large and empty Touring Gallery space, leaving himself in the corner with his timpani and the rest of the space dedicated to sound and colour alone, with a softly illuminated floor and a glittering roof. Organist Andrew Bainbridge and oboist David Nuttall performed Bach in the Organ Room to pink and purple lighting, with Nuttall providing an impressive solo of Berio’s Sequenza VII centred around a B natural which hummed constantly in the background.
The Organ Room was also set for world class pianist Steven Osborne’s edgy and resonant performance of Messiaen’s marathon Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus, and award-winning young soprano Allison Bell who gave an expressive and conversational performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
While there were many classical and contemporary works, the only jazz performance of the weekend was the late-night Tom Vincent Trio in the intimate Theatre. In his usual style, Vincent was completely hyperactive on piano, working himself into a sweaty jazz frenzy that resulted in him taking off his jacket and removing – and folding – his tie on stage. His energy had him bouncing off his stool, while Alf Jackson joined him on drums and Ben Brinkhoff on double bass for a tribute to Thelonious Monk.
As varied and thrilling as the performances were, the lunch and dinner feasts were just as colourful. An array of hot and cold meats, bright orange sauce and tea eggs, every cheese you could name, and a chocolate desert in what I learned to be vagina-shaped bowls, were all accompanied by fine Moorilla wines. On communal tables, the diners were just as colourful – in my case, a friendly Spanish family, a stylish Melbourne couple, and a retired playwright.
Synaesthesia+ was a gathering of world class musicians, in a world class museum, showcasing world class works of art and music. But it was also an experience which encouraged you to question what you know about your own senses of taste, sight, and sound, and the powerful influence of colour in art and life. If MONA holds the weekend again next year, I recommend dedicating an entire day after to just sleep – you’re going to need to recover from this one.