While many musicians felt as though their lifeblood had been drained from them during Melbourne’s seemingly endless pandemic lockdowns, others were hard at work ensuring an injection of new vitality into the reopening of concert spaces. Pianist and composer Nat Bartsch was one such. As the recipient of the Merlyn Myer Music Commission 2021, she was supported in developing The Glasshouse, premiered this week by the award-winning chamber group, Inventi Ensemble in the Primrose Potter Salon.
The Glasshouse was not only the centerpiece of the program; the concepts and visual inspiration underlying the work permeated surrounding pieces, providing a sense of unity. Photographic images played a fundamental role from the moment the audience entered the venue, with Suzie Blake’s arresting photographs of the performers projected onto the Salon walls. Coloured or black and white, they complemented the six sepia prints by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) that formed relevant visual backgrounds as The Glasshouse was performed.
The other three works on the program comprised Bartsch’s arrangements of earlier works designed for different ensemble forces. In this iteration, microphones attached to or placed near all instruments meant that balance could be manipulated and sampling incorporated into a range of electronic effects.
Beginning with an arrangement of Lights and Shadows for viola and piano, we saw an appropriately glowing chiaroscuro portrait of Katie Yap as she played a warm, wispy-sounding lullaby to Bartsch’s gently rocking accompaniment.
A strong sense of the personal was a feature of the presentation, beginning with Marshall McGuire’s enthusiastic introduction. Although Nat Bartsch was sometimes surprisingly self-deprecating as she described her growth in confidence as a composer, her descriptions of the way she developed her ideas was illuminating. For instance, Homecoming found its impetus in reflecting on her luck in living in a place where just what she does is celebrated. As with most of Bartsch’s works on the program, Homecoming began with solo piano, very quiet, minimalist-style chords soon joined by sighing then plucked strings. The piece gained momentum as the violin dominated Paul Zabrowarny’s cello and a rippling piano ostinato in a passionate celebratory outburst. Kyla Matsuura-Miller’s background portrait might have been the visual focus, but the compelling energy of her playing supplied the aural excitement in this and every piece in which she featured.
Making a full complement of six players, the core members of Inventi Ensemble, oboist Ben Opie and flautist Melissa Doecke, joined the others for the six movements of The Glasshouse. The title refers to Cameron’s photography studio on the Isle of Wight, where sitters were asked to sit perfectly still for three minutes. The boredom entailed is clearly visible on the face of a young girl dressed as a cherub – the subject of the three-minute second movement of the suite, I Wait… Although the length of the movement is designed to reflect the exposure time, there was no trace of boredom for listeners as Opie’s oboe sang above textured held chords and the insistent ticking of the piano and plucked strings.
Without being quite as literal as for I Wait…, Bartsch’s imaginative musical responses referenced essential characteristics of all portraits. The Echo began on a questioning note, fragments of soft voices billowing to crescendos then fading away – Greek myth connecting with what Bartsch describes as “women of Afghanistan, seeking to escape the Taliban, with their voices metaphorically and literally taken away from them”. Contemporary experience was also alluded to in La Madonna Aspettante (The Waiting Madonna), the mother and child reflecting “the deeply intimate and quiet experience of lockdown parenting”. Long, slowly moving chords leading to a rhythmic rocking from the strings were interspersed with interleaving solo passages from flute and oboe.
The third movement, based on the portrait of astronomer JFW Herschel, began with an electronic overlay and viola solo. This was followed by a violin melody riding above a pulsating background, then an assertive flute solo taken up by the oboe, culminating in a passage of electronic sampling.
It was not always easy to discern which instrument was supposed to be the featured one for each movement as several instruments had important moments in many. Melodic improvisation, a key ingredient in Bartsch’s fusion of the classical and jazz elements in her musical language, was convincingly integrated into the musical fabric by these skilled artists. The jazz dimension was most clearly evident in the fifth movement, depicting A Group of Kalutara Peasants. Trilling winds, pounding, dance-like rhythms underpinning an exuberant violin and snatches of melody from the cello made for an exciting experience.
The final movement, Aged 94, taken on the anniversary of her 72nd wedding day, Bartsch calls “a meditation on survival” as we face the dual threats of pandemic and climate change. A slow, heavy piano statement was interspersed with flashes of nimble thought. As other instruments joined in, the portrait of Sarah Groves was replaced by a black and white photograph of the musicians, the pastoral nature of the setting emphasised by an appealing oboe melody that slowly transmuted into an electronic echo.
Premiered by PLEXUS and arranged for Inventi Ensemble, Into the Light is dedicated to the nurses who served in World War I. Bartsch explained that this work seeks “to capture the butterflies … [they] … must have felt as they embarked on their journey”. An initial repetitive piano note tolled like an apprehensive heartbeat. Virtuosic playing by the flute, then oboe, string trio and a passage of jazzy violin culminated in a gentle closing.
More personal recollections and an encore performance of her popular composition for solo piano, The End of the Decade, was a fitting conclusion to what was a celebration of her achievements and those of other women. Hopefully, The Glasshouse will be accorded longevity in a filmed recording and many live performances in spaces that will further enhance the electronic and visual content.
Photo credit: Suzie Blake.
Heather Leviston reviewed “The Glasshouse”, performed by its composer, Nat Bartsch, and Inventi Ensemble in the Primrose Potter Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre on November 23, 2021.