How privileged we are to hear a program of 21st century works performed impeccably by an exciting, experienced, truly scintillating trio who has made an ongoing and growing impact in the contemporary music world. From Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, Chris Howlett introduced this event with words of acclamation and praise for PLEXUS, a group highly admired for not only leading the commissioning of over 110 new compositions since 2014, but performing and airing the music of contemporary Australian and international composers.
Monica Curro (volin), Philip Arkinstall (clarinet) and Stefan Cassomenos (piano) are a passionate ensemble to watch. They exude physical involvement with the performance, they dance with their instruments, they are at the peak of technical excellence, and show a highly intuitive musical connection.
With Jennifer Higdon’s 2001 work DASH, PLEXUS took off with a blast, playing with a virtuosic, adrenalin-filled intensity. The air was filled with energetic sparks, extreme and random pitches, sweeping scale passages, and colourful and exhilarating accents. Crisp, brisk, rapid-fire repeated staccato notes on a single pitch, at times had us running on the spot, awaiting the occasional pause for breathe when sustained, prominent clarinet tones eased the pace temporarily. The energy and split-second timing from each player was remarkable as they sprinted through the final hectic bars. Almost breathless, Curro welcomed the audience, connecting and sharing the trio’s love and commitment to “celebrating the new music of many genres.”
With sparkling, high arpeggiated figures, the piano opened Graeme Koehne’s 2016 piece LOVE SONG. Peaceful, celestial tones and crystal clear motives were then joined by calm, sustained violin accompaniment, allowing the broad sonority of the clarinet to sing this re-worked aria from Koehne’s cabaret opera RINGTONE CYCLE. There was much warmth, sensitive dynamics, and romantic expression shown, as the musicians maintained a fine balance in this contrasting, lightly theatrical piece.
Cassemenos introduced Richard Grantham’s 2014 Debugeti, a piece from the larger work The Lyrebird in my Piano. The amalgam of composers Debussy and Ligeti for the title suggested the lightness and rapidity we would hear from this almost impressionist texture. For Cassamenos’ virtuosic technique and ability, there were many notes, imitation, bell-like shining repetitions, sparkling whirlwinds of high feathery repeated flutters, and cascades of continuous patterns. Violin and clarinet enriched the texture with more intense, sweeping, broad fragments and bass clarinet added further depth and colour.
The brilliance of jazz pianist and composer Joe Chindamo was remarked on with high admiration when Arkinstall introduced us to Triologues (2015). Chindamo describes the work as “having conversational, chattering qualities”, “a trio of monologues symbiotically linked. Each voice is a prominent and personal statement, forging its own pathway.” In these sections each member of Plexus was able to take full space and time to play thoughtfully and personally, to use silence, pauses, free time and tone, different instruments and voices yet one shared language. Re-occurring, almost as a connecting bridge section was the authoritative opening section to this piece. Here, the three instruments asserted themselves with authority, relentless drive, syncopated interjections, determined loud, fast, staccato notes, in an atmosphere of atonality, their conversational statements more like zig-zag lines in this very modern, fast world. Performance of this complex work requires intense solo contributions and exact precision in ensemble. The final section was a forceful summary of the agitation and anxiety of modern society, portrayed in this excellent composition, brilliantly performed.
Maria Grenfell’s Voyage (2015) was designed as a musical, emotional and spiritual journey, inspired by pioneering ANZAC women in their travels across the world. A tonal world of calm rhythms, broad, legato melodies, and repeated melodic phrases opened this new venture. With discovery and the experience of other travellers en route, the instruments picked up a more demanding pulse, with pizzicato and staccato beats enhancing the energy of the human march forward, sometimes with jaunty melodic fragments and sometimes with a colourful texture of interweaving lines. The third movement flowed towards its destination with calm longer strides, gentle forward steps and smooth tonal qualities. The sweet upper register of the clarinet added short, happy, jovial moments in the fourth and final section, with Voyage contrasting greatly with the other programmed works in texture and style.
Further contrast and mood change came in the final work Blues (2001). Plexus took just the one movement from Stephen Chatman’s 3 part work TRIO, to create a sultry, late night, jazz bar atmosphere. Beginning with low, dark piano chords, and a long, spacey upper stratosphere violin note, the clarinet entry of a long, slowly rising glissando completed the nostalgia. Shades of Gershwin, shades of smoky downtown free form jazz, this was a suitably cool end to an exciting program. Quite cool.