The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s SSO at Carriageworks series was greeted with delight by new music enthusiasts when it was launched by SSO Chief David Robertson and Artist in Residence Brett Dean in 2016 with Crossing the Threshold, a programme of Pierre Boulez, Brett Dean, Lisa Illean and Gérard Grisey. Showcasing contemporary classical music in a separate location – in a venue less burdened by the weight of centuries of accumulated concert-hall tradition and ceremony – attracted a different kind of audience – one hoping to be challenged and stretched by the unfamiliar. This remained true almost two years on: on Sunday evening the audience at Carriageworks was one that had bought the ticket and was clearly ready to take the ride.
And what a ride it was. In semi-darkness, the audience was treated to an uninterrupted sonic journey (all the works were performed back to back without applause, musicians silently holding up signs to denote composer and work) of a little under an hour and a half, ranging from the complex intermingling music of Erkki Veltheim’s Prelude and Coda through to the subtle detailing of Đuro Živković’s On the Guarding of the Heart (a world and Australian premiere respectively).
That this was a non-conventional orchestral experience was made abundantly clear (if it wasn’t already) to the audience as they walked into the cavernous concrete space at Carriageworks. A string quintet played an arrangement of the jagged Präludium from Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op.25 while people took their seats, and this music would soon form the backdrop to the world premiere of Veltheim’s “séance for an orchestral concert”, which saw two groups of musicians, conducted by Brett Dean, flank the quintet on either side of the hall, trading fanfare-like interjections and sustained tones against the quintet. Harnessing ideas of spirituality and ritual, the work was a ceremony to summon the spirit of Schoenberg (musicians spell out the composer’s name in pitches) and convince him to reverse his 12-tone method of composition. The music of the ensembles swelled and receded, the strings’ Präludium rising to the surface between the phrases of the wind and brass instruments in a shifting soundscape until only the strings were left at the end. The second movement, Coda, performed later in the programme, was more aggressive, the ensemble augmented by corrugated iron sheets played with beaters, hammers and saw – not to mention an electric drill with its own piercing arc of sound – the ceremony of summoning replaced with one of vicious attack.
The world premiere of James Hullick’s Were/Oblivion was similarly ritualistic in its performance, the composer – his face painted in garish colours and head dusted with glitter – wringing thunderous sound from his electric guitar, channelling David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. An exploration of the tensions between artistic practice and family life, Were/Oblivion set Hullick’s own text – a letter addressed to his daughters, sung by the composer in guttural, sometimes screaming tones in a powerful, heartfelt performance of fractured sound and fury.
Liza Lim describes her 1997 work The Heart’s Ear for flute clarinet and string quartet as “a meditation on a fragment of a Sufi melody”, the composer finding inspiration in the work of Sufi poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. The oldest work on the programme (it’s been recorded several times), The Heart’s Ear is a writhing work that evokes suggestions of Arabic music. Athletic solo lines from flautist Emma Sholl and clarinettist Francesco Celata weaved above the strings and were coloured with flutter-tonguing, timbral trills and multiphonics creating a vivid, colourful experience.
Brett Dean’s 2008 Dream Sequence also harnessed unconventional timbres, the work full of tenebrous hues and dark, unsettling effects that foreshadow the sound world he draws on in his opera Hamlet, coming to the Adelaide Festival next year. Low rumbles of percussion and nocturnal scurrying in the strings gave way to brighter, fantasy-like figurations, while mallets striking a suspended magazine created a distinctive rumbling and raw breath through instruments felt by turns animalistic or mechanical.
Bringing the concert to a close was On the Guarding of the Heart by Serbian-Swedish composer Đuro Živković, which felt quieter, more delicately traced (at least compared to the iron beating Zeltheim that preceded it). Živković has described the work, which won the $100,000 Grawemeyer Prize for Composition in 2013, as a Bach inspired “instrumental cantata”. Bell tones and lush piano figures (dispatched by pianist Zubin Kanga) and heart-beat ostinato created a surging landscape of repeated chords and textured crescendo, the audience left to bathe in the lingering afterglow of the final piano chord.
In a concert that plumbed ideas of inner life – be they dreams or spiritual realms – there were also musical threads that bound the pieces together. Harmonic-rich violin tremolo figures in Veltheim’s Prelude prefigured similar effects – on a more subtle sonic scale – produced by Hullick’s electric guitar, while the glittering celeste sprinkled its magic across the programme.
This was a challenging concert – almost gruelling in its intensity – and yet there was a palpable sense of lightness and catharsis in the audience as they emerged blinking after the final notes. There are few opportunities to immerse oneself so vividly and so deeply in new sounds and sensations.
Unfortunately there are to be no SSO at Carriageworks concerts in the Orchestra’s 2018 season. While there’s been a much greater focus on new music in the mainstage seasons under David Robertson, and as Brett Dean is Artist in Residence that’s certainly not the last we’ll hear of him (he’s conducting his Fire Music this Wednesday to Friday for a start), this series was treasured as a chance to hear exclusively contemporary but particularly new Australian music performed by an orchestra at the top of its game. Just as there are listeners who may only be interested in 18th- and 19th-century repertoire, SSO at Carriageworks created a musical space for listeners who might want to hear the likes of Liza Lim or Gérard Grisey but aren’t necessarily so keen to hear another Brahms or Beethoven Symphony. It is sad to see this series come to an end and I think it will be missed.
Brett Dean conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninoff on Fire at the Sydney Opera House October 18 – 20.