X-ray Baby. Works by Hsieh, Martin, Pinto d’Aguiar, Neal

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, directed by Timothy Phillips
Classical, New Music
Crackbell Records
http://arckosymphonicorchestra.bandcamp.com/album/x-ray-baby www.crackbellrecords.com
Reviewed by , June 1st, 2015

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble is well known to new music enthusiasts in Melbourne, and now with this release of a live recording CD (also available as download), it will surely begin to gather a well-deserved wider audience. Founded in 2008, the ensemble has sought to fill several gaps in the performance of new music in Australia. First among these is that of having the capacity to present large-ensemble and orchestral-scale works, since while there are fine contemporary music groups in all capital cities, they tend to focus on chamber works due (primarily) to financial constraints. Secondly, Arcko seeks to create an awareness of longer-term repertoire-building, or even canon formation, through performing works multiple times, and the picking up of works commissioned by other groups that deserve further dissemination (hence the ark). This addresses a common complaint among even the most prominent Australian composers: that their works are often only performed once or twice, and don’t have much chance to take on a life of their own in the nation’s developing musical sensibility.

Arcko rehearsing

Arcko rehearsing, led by Timothy Phillips

This CD is a live recording of a concert given in Melbourne in 2013, and makes a very fine showcase for this group of talented and dedicated musicians, under the leadership of conductor and artistic director, Timothy Phillips. Each of these works is scored for a large chamber orchestra.

Annie Hsieh’s Icy Disintegration (2010) was originally written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; in addition to this performance by Arcko Symphonic it has also been played in Adelaide and in the USA. Hsieh is a young Taiwanese-Australian composer currently working in the US, after studies in Melbourne. Icy Disintegration is a beautiful, strong work, inspired by the great drama of melting icebergs. While the thundering rumbles, creaks, groans and whistles of the disintegrating ice bring our real fears about climate change to mind, there is also a pleasure in this work that delights in the wild forces of nature. This performance is vivid and colourful, bringing out the inherent poetry of Hsieh’s orchestration. One hesitates to focus on any one area, since the composition is remarkably well balanced, but the brass-writing is particularly striking and superbly performed here. In some respects, the work is about orchestral colour—and in this it belongs to a lineage that reaches beyond the late-20th century spectralists (whose influences are felt) to the earlier klangfarben experiments of Ligeti and his predecessors Schoenberg and Webern over a century ago. In this, the work is something of a masterwork, in the old sense of an apprentice’s examination piece—and by this I intend a high compliment, in so far as many more established composers have not achieved this level of technical mastery. But the work goes beyond this, with an underlying strength of form and purpose that is Varesian, if anything—less concerned with melodic shapes and harmonies and more with musical materials operating at an architectonic level, primal energies and materials in interaction. Hsieh’s talent as a composer, even at this early stage of career, is rather like a force of nature itself, yet balanced by a bright intelligence. While Icy Disintegration is itself a very fine piece, I feel that Hsieh may have yet more surprises in store for us during the coming years.

Composer Annie Hsieh

Composer Annie Hsieh

Caerwen Martin’s X-ray Baby (2011) begins with what seem like whale songs, but are in fact musical ideas inspired by human babies. In terms of compositional process, this is a complex work. It was built from graphic materials of x-rays and ultrasounds, traced onto music paper. Reworked in music notation software, the work was eventually retranslated by hand into a more-or-less graphic score. The result, certainly, is worth all the labour on the composer’s part. It is a compelling and enthralling piece, full of distinctive ideas and colours. To some extent, such unconvential scores depend upon the quality of performance for their success, and Arcko Symphonic Ensemble certainly deliver on its part of the project. The playing is terrifically exciting, working through moments of lyrical fragility to a thunderous closing climax. One senses even in the recording the powerful leadership of conductor Timothy Phillips, whose musicianship is characterised by a refined balancing of the vital attention to finer details with a larger sense of the overarching poetry and structure of a work. Martin is herself also a well-known cellist, and this practical sensibility no doubt contributes to the success of the unusual score.

Composer and cellist Caerwen Martin

Composer and cellist Caerwen Martin

In some ways a more conventional orchestral work, Felipe Pinto d’Aguiar’s Sea Changes (2010) is a three movement piece of lyricism and some grandeur. A young Chilean composer who studied in Melbourne before moving to Boston, d’Aguilar is clearly a formidable talent, and this large scale work is both virtuosic and lavish in its materials and orchestration (which is perhaps only a little too dependent upon percussion for effect). Again, we sense the composer’s necessary awareness of the European sensibility of post-spectralism, but also a refinement of melodic and harmonic material that seems perhaps to owe something more directly to Debussy (and somewhere in between, Boulez). As with Hsieh’s work, I feel that this a more than just a very enjoyable piece by a clever young composer—rather, it presages the beginning of a career that shows already considerable promise.

Composer Felipe Pinto d'Aguiar

Composer Felipe Pinto d’Aguiar

Kate Neal’s Particle Zoo II (2013) owes rather less to the sheer seduction of lavish sonorities than the other pieces in this program—but this is not to say that it is less colourful. Rather, we find that it begins from a different premise, one that is more clearly based in a harmonic structure, in pitch materials and exhilarating virtuosity. At the start we, find ourselves lured into a quasi-minimalist world (of the Netherlandish rather than American type) but Neal has a larger purpose in mind and we are soon carried beyond this into a brilliant, sparkling universe of developing, clashing, intermingling, cross-fertilising, volatile ideas (the particles, presumably, of the title). Neal has an irrepressible imagination, so the listener is presented with almost a surfeit of delights—from moment to moment, countless little thrills of melodic invention, rhythmic energy, and surprises of colouristic direction. The very substantial piano part is brought to life by the indefatigably athletic young virtuoso Joy Lee, whose playing has the magical quality of being scintillatingly beautiful even at the most dramatic moments.

Composer Kate Neal

Composer Kate Neal

Each of the pieces in this program is in some way a virtuoso work for the modern orchestra and each presents considerable challenges. Arcko Symphonic Ensemble is an ensemble built for such challenge, and the commitment and ability of the performers is evident throughout. This ensemble holds a special, arguably unique place in the complex ecology of new music performance in Australia, and artistic director Timothy Phillips must be credited with having drawn together a capable team to present music that is of significance to us in our time.

I feel that it is important to recognise also that this program represents works by young composers each in a way at a crucial stage of career. It is inestimably important for these composers to have their work championed in this way. The fact that three out of four composers are women should also not go unnoticed.

The performance is very well recorded by engineer Phil Collings, who has captured a sense of the marvellous acoustic of the 19th century Northcote Town Hall in Melbourne.

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