Back in 1980 Australian-born art critic, Robert Hughes presented a documentary series entitled The Shock of the New. Tapping into the late 20th-century zeitgeist, there was a presumption that anything new in art must be shocking. We’ve come a long way since then.
This carefully curated program of “new” music basks in the warm, reflected glow of minimalist practice that has evolved over the last five decades. Nothing shocking here – rather the music shows how durable and flexible minimalism can be.
Pekka Kuusisto and Nico Muhly. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Under the dynamic leadership of violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, the ACO Collective (players from the Australian Chamber Orchestra together with members of its Emerging Artists Program) played with an impressive combination of accuracy, colour and energy to communicate an exhilarating joie de vivre at the heart of the chosen music.
A Drone Meditation served as a prelude to Steve Reich’s Duet, in which Kuusisto and fellow violinist, Harry Ward shone as soloists, supported by an admirably buoyant orchestral accompaniment. The score’s intricacies of rhythm, harmony and texture were delivered with enviable clarity.
Missy Mazzoli’s You Know Me From Here (arranged for strings from the original string quartet) is “a trek through chaos, then loneliness to a place of security and companionship”. Its three movements allowed the players plenty of opportunity to present a wide range of timbral shifts and starkly opposed textures.
Mazzoli’s finale, described as a “raucous love song” contrasted with the bright, finely shaded colours of Andrea Tarrodi’s Birds of Paradise. Inspired by a BBC Planet Earth film, the Swedish composer has created an alluring sound-world in which the players evoke an avian paradise through carefully matching or contrasting tone colours. Of special note was the sonorous cello duet with ACO principal, Timo-Veikko Valve and emerging artist, James Morley.
Although written in 2016, Alex Mills’ violin duet, One is Fun received its world premiere at this concert; Kuusisto being joined by ACO colleague, Liisa Pallandi. While bearing some similarities to Reich’s “phasing” technique, the music relies in particular on finely calibrated differences in pitch and rhythm to create a rocking effect which at times mesmerised and at others times resembled a squeaky door hinge.
All of these minimalist diversions led up to the mainstay of the program, the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s Shrink: Concerto for Violin and Strings. Muhly has an ardent musical advocate in Kuusisto who delivered the often demanding solo writing with huge commitment and flair. Shrink is cast in three movements, each focussing on a particular interval: ninths, then sixths, then “a tiny set of intervals between unisons and fourths”. While the underlying rhythmic propulsion of minimalism is present, Muhly reveals a masterly organisation of his other musical resources: harmonies intrigue and changes of register and texture provide dramatic narrative. As Muhly points out the interaction of orchestra and soloist is vital to his conception. This intricate interplay was well served by all concerned. The orchestra navigated the often complex metrical landscape with precision and verve, leading to a wonderfully exciting and engrossing finale. There’s every chance that Shrink will become a 21st-century classic.
A murmured piece of solo Bach helped ease the frenetic mood of the concerto and brought the official concert to a close. After a short break Kuusisto and Muhly took to the stage for an hour’s “duo set” in which there were both solo and duet items ranging from traditional Finnish music to works by Muhly, Glass and Pärt, along with some improvisation. Clearly these two musical collaborators enjoy each other’s company enormously.
Here’s hoping this friendship will bear more musical fruit. Like Shrink it will be “new” in the best sense, but probably not shocking.