May 2, 2018
The hum of machinery mingled with the electronic track to Ned McGowan’s Workshop, performed, fittingly, in the Hot Shop of Canberra’s historic – and still running – glassworks. The sound of Susanna Borsch’s amplified alto recorder skittered off the heaving industrial soundtrack, her fiendish technique machine-like in itself.
Susanna Borsch in the Hot Shop at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop
A flautist and composer, McGowan (also a performer at this year’s Canberra International Music Festival) wrote Workshop for Borsch in 2004, but this performance in the Glassworks felt made to order. The piece is episodic – spanning lyrical passages to grinding, lurching machine rhythms – and unfolded with Borsch playing under a neon Hot Shop sign, glassworkers wandering through the space (sometimes with glowing molten glass) as she duetted energetically with the electronic track. “This is not a doctor’s waiting room,” as festival AD Roland Peelman put it in his introduction to the concert. A large industrial fan that whirred to life behind me felt like it was part of an ambitiously choreographed site-specific performance.
The 12th concert in this year’s CIMF, Glass Games (which despite the title, and the festival’s earlier programming, didn’t contain any Philip Glass) was a kind of peripatetic concert – a musical tour of the Glassworks next door to the festival’s home in the Fitters’ Workshop.
Opening with a performance of Roger Smalley’s Landscape with Figures, with bassoonist Ben Hoadley dispatching the pointilistic and expansive figures from the pulpit-like staircase of the foyer, the audience was ushered through to the Hot Shop – where they were treated to Workshop and Giacinto Scelsi’s Two Pieces for Trumpet, sensitively dispatched by Fletcher Cox – before moving into the expansive Cold Shop for the world premiere of a new work by Benjamin Drury and Berio’s Naturale for viola, percussion and tape.
Claire Edwardes in the Cold Shop at the Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Peter Hislop
Titled Stained Glass, Drury’s new piece for vibraphone and electronics began with the glistening sound of bowed and gently struck bars, the work shimmering into a wind-chime-like haze of glitter beautifully rendered and shaped by percussionist Claire Edwardes. In a shift of texture, Berio’s 1985 work Naturale saw violist James Wannan join Edwardes, the potent sound of his instrument carrying from down the workshop, where again glassworkers continued their labour, the hiss of industrial fans a constant presence. Deeply infused with folk idioms – the electronic track is created with field recordings of singers in Palermo – this was a finely nuanced performance of what was perhaps the weightiest work on the program, Edwardes and Wannan finding a deft balance with the electronics and a thoughtful comraderie.
From there the audience moved once more into the foyer for a performance of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for clarinet – clarinettist Magdalenna Krstevska playing from the ground floor, the audience sprawled across the multi-story staircase – before migrating to the Fitters’ Workshop for a stunning, virtuosic performance of Eugene Ysaÿe’s Sonata for violin solo, Op. 27 No 2, written for Jacques Thibaud, by Anna da Silva Chen (who was recently announced as a Semi-Finalist in the ABC Young Performers Awards). From delicate pianissimos to the gritty low register of the fortes, this was a wonderful performance – the double-stopped counterpoint of the second movement was achingly beautiful.
Ben Hoadley performing in the Canberra Glassworks. Photo © Peter Hislop
Glass Games was a fascinating program, but the use of the performance spaces – as innovative as it was – was hit and miss. The performances in the foyer, though finely crafted, were competing with the ambient noise of the Glassworks cafe, the hiss of sliding doors as tourists wandered in and out and at one point the distant sound of other instruments rehearsing, while the Drury and Berio gained little from being in the Cold Shop (and indeed, may have been even more effective in the cleaner acoustic of the Fitters’ Workshop, as the Ysaÿe was). Cox’s trumpet cut through the industrial noise of the Hot Shop like a knife, however, with both the bright sound of Scelsi’s first movement and the muted colour of the second. But the hit was the McGowan – Borsch’s white-hot performance of Workshop was made for the Hot Shop.
Canberra International Music Festival takes place in venues across Canberra until May 6.