The Fitters Workshop, Canberra Glassworks
May 9, 2015

It’s no secret that the CIMF Artistic Director Roland Peelman is a devotee of modern music. During his 25 year tenure leading the Song Company, Peelman has commissioned countless new Australian works, so its unsurprising that Concert 20, Movers and Shakers, one of the Festival’s most substantial offerings featuring by the far the largest ensemble of this year’s selection, should be a programme featuring exclusively contemporary music, including two Australian premieres and a world premiere. In a cultural landscape that is increasingly skewed toward the conservative, it’s reassuring to see programming that seeks to broaden the horizons of Australian music lovers.

However in addition to his bold commitment to championing 20th and 21st Century repertoire in his festival selection, Peelman also brought his considerable skill as a conductor and performer to bear on this performance. It is a great credit to this inestimably talented musician that he is more than merely a figurehead for the CIMF. He is an active participant, and the level of polish delivered throughout this concert was testament to Peelman’s positive influence on this festival, both on and off the stage.

The inspiration for the title of Concert 20 came from one of the great examples of American minimalism and a true modern classic: John Adams’ Shaker Loops. The eight members of the festival’s two resident string quartets, The New Zealand Quartet and the Tinalley Quartet, were drafted to lead a mid-sized string ensemble made up of the festival’s Young Artist Fellows, and the combination of seasoned professionals and emerging talent yielded an exceptionally high calibre sound.

Written in the late 70s, Shaker Loops is a tightly coiled dynamo of musical energy, and despite its connection to the highly repetitious pattern music of Reich and Glass, Adams’ aesthetic is more carefully nuanced. In the hands of Peelman this well-crafted performance was rich in detail, both in the furiously charged opening and closing movements and in the serene, reflective central sections.

Originating closer to home, but sharing more than a few genes with the American minimalists, composer-in-residence Kate Moore’s Velvet for cello and piano received its Australian premiere. This simple, hypnotic piece, performed by cellist Geoffrey Gartner joined by Peelman at the piano, offered an eloquent, uncomplicatedly beautiful sound word, evoking the drapery of fabric in the works of Da Vinci and the painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

Also receiving its Australian premiere was Peter Sculthorpe’s Saxophone concertino, Island Songs, performed by the queen of classical sax, Amy Dickson. Rather than being a flashy show-piece of virtuosic fireworks, this music luxuriates in the creamy, mellifluous sonority of the Soprano and Alto Saxophones. Dickson’s star has been consistently on the rise in recent years, particularly overseas in the UK and Europe, so it’s a great privilege to see how well deserved her impeccable reputation is, on home soil. Effortless and deeply felt, Dickson’s full, honeyed tone deftly communicated the sorrowful character of Sculthorpe’s lamenting music inspired by effects of climate change on the Torres Straight islands.

These three pieces make excellent bedfellows, sharing a common connection to conventional harmony, and minimalistic composition, but for my money the concert’s solitary world premiere, Full Fathom Five by Brian Howard, which inhabits a very different aesthetic landscape, was the stand-out success of the performance.

This newly commissioned piece for chamber orchestra is inspired by Jackson Pollock’s 1947 drip painting of the same name, yet despite it’s philosophical connection to action-art, Howard delivers an highly controlled, sophisticated and meticulously crafted score that leaves nothing to chance. Waves of tumultuous sound course in fluidic lines that move turbulently across the ensemble, making expert use of the broad palette of instrumental sounds available.

Peelman’s empathy for new music is put to excellent use, ensuring the clarity of Howard’s dense textures. The purpose of the constantly shifting kaleidoscope of sound in this piece risks being obscured by poorly realised balance, and Peelman was clearly acutely aware of maintaining a tight control of the ensemble to prevent the music becoming muddied.

Compared to the rest of the programme, Howard’s sound-world is a challenging one, but it occurred to me that the title of the concert took on a particularly apt meaning here. Great music should be about more than merely entertaining, and this brutal, confronting, deeply affecting piece both moves and shakes the listener in a profound and potent way. This is a brave, uncompromising and significant work from Howard, and worthy of many more performances.