Live audiences are back!
Melbourne’s reputation for holding a record number of lockdown days and wildly unpredictable Spring weather patterns was proven this year. How wonderful it was to become “normal” again, with live audiences enthusiastically supporting the two short “back-to-concerts” in the Athenaeum theatre, the established home of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. “Back-to-back” Shostakovich pieces in the two concerts of 20th century music, was well considered programming, featuring Stefan Cassomenos on piano in both ensemble programs.
Light & Shadow brought cellist Kalina Krusteva and Cassomenos together to explore the contrasting colours of French impressionism and Russian themes in two popular cello sonatas. It was a great delight to hear and see the highly acclaimed international soloist and chamber musician Krusteva perform Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor (1915), a popular work, loved for its innovative and engaging design, especially the beauty and meaningfulness of the descending motifs of the magnificent Prologue. The technical demands of the following Serenade and Finale movements were mastered with ease and enjoyment by this mature partnership – virtuosic performers whose rhythmic work glided smoothly together. Most admirable were the varied special effects on the cello, colourful bowings and incisive pizzicato, rapid staccato and glissandos, and short bursts of a modern rhythmic language required in the many sudden changes of tempo.
Equally marvellous was Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 40 (1934), also in D minor. This grand four-movement work was performed with class, and the composer’s widely spaced textures and extreme range of tonal registers were clear and balanced. The final allegro showed hints of being a theatrical burlesque affair, an escapade for virtuosic and colourful musicians whose copycat alternating themes raced to a quirky and surprising close. The closing work, the contrasting popular Romancefrom the Soviet film The Gadfly (1955) offered warm comfort for audience members daring to brave Melbourne’s wild wind and rain outside.
After a short “interval”, the second concert – Promenade – flowed meaningfully from Light & Shadow, opening with three refreshing and warmly coloured pieces from Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1 of Shostakovich, arranged by Cassomenos. The pianist returned to the stage with PLEXUS trio members – Monica Curro (violin), Philip Arkinstall (clarinet), and guest cellist Michelle Wood, adding a new palette of orchestral colours and sparkling couture befitting the jazz and dance styles to come.
The quartet quickly established a suitably nostalgic aura by exuding the rich timbres of an orchestral dance band. Waltz was sensuous and theatrical, straight ahead and nostalgic. In Polka Cassomenos imitated orchestral percussive tones, while Arkinstall surprised an appreciative audience with his castanet playing. The nostalgia continued in Foxtrot, with a soft clarinet luring us easily into a smoky European bar, where Curro’s violin added the character and personality required in every inspiratory dance band.
PLEXUS concerts have been a significant launching place for premier performances of new Australian compositions. They welcomed two audience members (Chris Arnold and Margot Costanzo), who had responded to PLEXUS’ commission for music composed by Elena Kats-Chernin, paying “a tribute to 100 years of Tango”. Take Me Along, an exotically flavoured work in six movements resulted. It is hard to escape a taste of Piazzola in contemporary settings of these traditional dance rhythms, but the enthusiasm and artistic skills of PLEXUS gave these pieces much buoyancy, sensuality and flair. Claritango was true Kats-Chernin, with brightly coloured melodies and syncopated traditional rhythms, while Tango Insistente played around with ensemble orchestrations, developing highly energetic chromatic passages, and pairing violin and cello in pizzicato partnership. In Tango Mysterioso cello and clarinet danced a low, slow and sultry dance, which broadened into a more sophisticated dance as accented piano and violin tones increased the orchestral feel. A magical ending came as each instrument faded with sparse, conversational fragments. Tango Chase sent the piano into more assertive sweeping passages across the whole keyboard, as energetic rhythms and time changes created a new form. With My Little Song sparse and gentle melodies were again shared around; cello and a velvety clarinet solo were featured, and instruments were paired in varied combinations. A final Contrapatango became an exciting gallopede, with busy overlapping and echoing melodies and a full display of joyful rhythmic energy from the “almost dancing” performers.
These two short concerts wonderfully celebrated the return of live audiences in Melbourne, along with the important collaboration of musicians, MDCH directors, technical crew, composers and generous supporters of commissioned works.
Julie Mc Erlain reviewed Light & Shadow, performed by Kalina Krusteva & Stefan Cassomenos, and Promenade, performed by PLEXUS, at the Athenaeum Theatre on November 3, 2021.