Eclectic mix with Latin spice manages to overshadow Philip Glass premiere.

QSO Studio, South Bank, Brisbane
May 15, 2015

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s new music mini-festival kicked off in style with an intriguing and eclectic mix of a programme featuring a few oldies but also a heralded Philip Glass/Aphex Twin world premiere and a less trumpeted Aussie premiere from Lyle Chan. And in the end, it was the Chan that came out ahead. Not that these variegated bills are a beauty contest, but it’s hard not to find yourself rooting for the winners and equally marking down the losers.

I’m going to begin with my number one of the evening – a modest work by Mexican composer Mario Lavista (born 1943) going by the cryptic name Clepsidra. Using the metaphor of Roman water clocks to reflect on the passing of time as well as celebrating the discovery of a river, the work is a colourful, clever, original score full of ticking violins, tolling horns and glacial, vibrato-less string effects topped off with a magical celesta part. Impressionistic, beautifully scored and reminding me at times in its orchestrational fastidiousness of Paul Dukas (but passed through a prism of late 20th-century movies and Bartókian nachtmusik), it had a dash of Carlos Chávez and a spoonful of Ligeti while remaining pretty unique. Alondra de la Parra (herself a Mexican) led the QSO through it in style. I’m already searching out more Lavista.

So, what of those premieres? The best first. Sydney composer Lyle Chan’s Untitled (2014) is so named because what was intended to be a riotous concerto for orchestra was interrupted in its gestation by the events of the Sydney siege last year. As it is, the party still starts with a bang – an essentially tonal knees-up combining a brash big-band vibe with rock drums, Latin-infused brass and a kind of hoe-down in the strings. Well-crafted, and pretty-well orchestrated it developed expertly until a siren and a collapse into hushed, agitating harp and bowed percussion. The ensuing heartfelt lament built on the strings rising to a perhaps surprisingly old-fashioned climax – quite heart-on-sleeve. Three trumpets then intoned a theme from a Biber passacaglia with a weird dissonant counterpoint in percussion and high pitched wailing woodwind. This third section was the most effective part and was intended to show the three souls of the victims leaving the earth to the protesting cries of birds. Well played, well conducted, it was all in all, a fine debut.

The Philip Glass premiere, on the other hand, was a bit of a damp squib. Icct Hedral is an orchestration of an Aphex Twin track, but you’d never really know the arch-mage of British electronic music had been anywhere near it in Glass’ low-key and rather flat arrangement. A dour theme endlessly repeating built from strings through added wind, six live voices and brass to a crescendo, a brief change of theme and then back to basics again. I found myself dropping off (which de la Parra had told us beforehand was an allowed response). With late Glass, so often it is the building blocks that determine how engaging the work will ultimately turn out to be. Perhaps the Aphex Twin original was just not inspiring enough, but this was a dull six minutes.

I’ll admit I found the Brazilian Fanfare by Clarice Assad similarly uninteresting. An eight-minute rhapsodic overture it was full of good-natured Latin-American jazz harking back to the Gershwin of the Cuban Overture, but it felt foursquare and a little derivative. Episodic and inclined to be on one note (and that a loud one) this was throwaway music that I would happily throw away.

Back to the good stuff, then, and the concert began in style with an homage to Piazzolla by his fellow countryman Osvaldo Golijov entitled Last Round after a short story about boxing. Written for carefully divided string orchestra it saw two halves of the QSO squaring off and glowering at each other as they hurled a barrage of tango effects across a divide occupied by a lone hapless conductor. It was most effectively done, a sort of sharks versus sharks in a 21st-century West Side Story. Accelerating as it developed, the players taunted each other with glissandi and nose-thumbing pizzicati before subsiding into a lamenting slower movement which riffs around Gardel’s famous Argentinian chanson My Beloved Buenos Aires. An attractive work, like much Golijov it’s populist, but sufficiently sophisticated to engage a wide range of tastes. The QSO strings provided a full, meaty sound in the intimate resonance of the QSO Studio.

In a neat piece of symmentrical programming, the concert was bookended in style with a demonstarion from the master himself – Piazzolla’s Tres Movimientos Tanguísticos Porteños. This was toe tapping and hip swaying stuff, played with great panache by an orchestra masterfully managed in matters of balance and pacing by de la Parra. With its smart orchestrations and subtle sense of light and shade, it all went to show that you don’t need a sledgehammer to make Latin- inflected music work its magic. When it was loud, it was loud – but no instrument was ever lost (and that included orchestral piano and a harpist who I must say played a complete blinder all evening). The second movement drew lovely solos from clarinet and flute, while the third movement fugue was led off by a superb bassoon. Alondra de la Parra brought it all off wonderfully, ensuring when hair was let down, it pretty much hit the floor.