UKARIA Cultural Centre, South Australia
June 10, 2018

Like (C)age of Enlightenment the evening before, the third program curated by cellist Nicolas Altstaedt in this year’s UKARIA 24 program, Chronos and Kairos, opened with an unusual stage set up, this time a table spread with a variety of plant materials – including a pot of spiky native grass, a small tree branch in water, dead leaves, the caps of acorns and several cacti in pots. James Knight – one of four percussionists at the festival as part of the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Momentum Ensemble – performed John Cage’s 1975 work Child of Tree with a reverent and curious intensity. He conjured a gentle, tactile sound world of rustling leaves, twanging pine cones, shaking seedpods and clattering acorns, but the sounds created by the amplified cacti – Cage would also use amplified cactus as an instrument in his 1976 work Branches – were the most fascinating. The taller instrument, with denser, shorter needles, produced a sound when stroked not unlike dripping water or the purring of a large cat.

Chronos and Kairos was structured like an orchestral concert, so from Cage’s unusual overture, we swung into the concerto: Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang and British violist Lawrence Power joining the Momentum Ensemble in another thrilling performance to give the previous evening’s Haydn a run for its money. Frang and Power brought buckets of personality to the solo lines, Power’s viola dark with a husky edge and Frang’s violin shining with a tight, intense vibrato, the two soloists giving plenty of push and pull but nonetheless nailing their ensemble work – particularly in the first movement’s cadenza – with stunning ease. From Frang’s plaintive opening solo, the Andante built with escalating tension while the finale buzzed with an exciting energy – thanks in no small part to another fine performance by the Momentum Ensemble, who matched the fervour of the soloists note for note. Such spontaneous, driving music-making has its dangers, and there were a few rough edges between ensemble and soloists, but it’s hard to argue with the raw energy of a performance like this, which was rewarded with a standing ovation from an audience in raptures.

It’s difficult to imagine a Shostakovich Symphony fitting into the intimate space at UKARIA (the Mozart felt like it was pushing the upper limits of size and sound in the venue, thrilling as it was) but Altstaedt nonetheless achieved it, in Viktor Derevianko’s arrangement of Symphony No 15 for piano trio and percussion. Shostakovich’s final symphony is full of sparse, open textures and therefore in many ways seems perfect for this kind of reduction. The colours, inevitably, are different – the opening flute solo is taken by piano, for instance – but while the vibrancy of the orchestral sonority is lost, the quartet of Momentum percussionists (Knight, Fraser Matthew, Jeremy Sreejayan and Thomas Robertson), Frang, Altstaedt and Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin delivered an incredibly crisp, taut performance that effectively traced the skeleton of the symphony if not the flesh, allowing the audience to hear the contours and details of this work anew.

Frang and Altstaedt played with steely precision and deft articulation, bows bouncing in the recurring nods to Rossini, Altstaedt particularly managing to sound massive, standing in for an entire orchestral lower string section. The percussionists were spot-on throughout – snare, timpani, marimba and glockenspiel cutting straight across the ensemble – while Kozhukhin handled the piano part (a formidable catch-all of the missing lines not covered by the other instruments) with aplomb. The arrangement falls short in the slower passages, however, the power of the vast, desolate second movement lost in the close setting. But there were many fine moments in the finale, from the magical piano and pizzicato section to Frang and Altstaedt’s weaving string lines as the fourth movement’s intensity built. Frang’s duet with Kozhukhin in the final Allegretto was one of the arrangement’s most beautiful and effective passages, the work culminating in haunting, glittering percussion.

Seven musicians will never be able to recreate the effect of a full symphony orchestra, but despite challenges thrown up by the score, this ensemble crafted a performance that was always interesting, focussed and, by the final movement, ultimately moving.