This was the tenth and final concert for 2023 in the Music at McClelland series curated by Monica Curro. These take place at the McClelland Sculpture Park, providing a wonderful opportunity to include a walk among the sculptures in the groomed parkland and native bush as well as lunch in the gallery’s café.
The program was an ambitious foray into the world of contemporary Australian music. Five of the seven composers were present for the performance, so we were privileged to hear each of them talk briefly about their work before its performance. I have rarely attended a concert of entirely contemporary music, and it was a truly refreshing experience to just sit and receive each piece as it carried me along, without feeling a need to be unduly analytical about how I should respond – it can be a burden to review familiar and well-known music that has been reviewed and analysed in depth by others vastly more musically educated than I.
The program opened with Flurry by Allan Zavod, who sadly died in 2016. It was composed for Plexus in 2015 as a tribute to those who served at Lone Pine at Gallipoli in WWI. Flurry opens with syncopated jazzy chords in the piano, and after being joined by violin and clarinet, becomes gentler and more lyrical, but progresses towards a recapitulation of the liveliness of the opening. The violin and clarinet duet reminded me of how completely together Curro and Arkinstall were in their performances at the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival (of which Curro and Cassomenos are Co-Artistic Directors), often sounding as one voice.
Adrian Banner introduced the second item, the world premiere of his Lark in a flat, telling us that it was inspired in part by stride music (and that the title means whatever you want it to mean!). This term was new to me, and after googling it later, I was gratified to discover that the reason this jolly piece reminded me of ragtime music was indeed because “stride” described the jazz style of rag. The instruments joyfully threw snatches to one another and the piece was great fun.
The final item before interval was Foyermusik by Cassomenos, so named because it had been commissioned in collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for performance in the foyer of the Melbourne Recital Centre for the Metropolis New Music Festival in 2019, and, as he put it, “designed not to be listened to”! Cassomenos had scored it for synthesizer, semi-acoustic violin, and amplified clarinet, but on this occasion he told us it would performed as “an acoustic premiere”. Cassomenos invited us to just chill out and imagine we were in the foyer – so I did. I could easily imagine its being played on electronic instruments, and I found it mesmerising despite the frenetic passages in places, in large part due to the repeated, almost incessant four-note motif on the piano. At times it even made me feel slightly anxious (perhaps with the intention of reminding the audience to go to the bathroom before entering the auditorium?). But there were also more relaxed passages, at one point a rather moving evocation of Jewish music in a minor key.
This was followed by a short interval with the audience welcome to wander out of the pavilion into the sculpture park, so many of us did. We returned to our seats for Mit den Augen Kirchners, a short solo piece composed for Arkinstall by Lilijana Maticevska for a collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria in 2018. It is a musical response to a work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the expressionist artists designated as “degenerate” by Hitler. One could imagine what Hitler would have thought of Maticevska’s exploration of the full range of effects that could be produced on the clarinet – as Arkinstall said in his introduction, “you’ll either love it or hate it”. Arkinstall’s performance demonstrated his complete mastery of the instrument, with double chords, wind effects, and other sounds I have difficulty in describing. I just allowed these astounding aural experiences to wash over me. To me, it was a form of musical expressionism that aptly mirrored Kirchner’s expressionism. Importantly, the painting was projected on a screen behind the stage.
Continuing with the relationship between music and art, the next piece was the wonderfully expressive Shifting by Melissa Douglas, another collaboration with the NGV for its Calder exhibition in 2019. Douglas was responding to Calder’s mobiles (one of which, hanging above Plexus in performance at the NGV, was projected on the screen), and in her introduction she told us that she had been hoping to capture the sense of weightlessness that Calder’s mobiles inspire. Cassomenos commented that Plexus felt as though they had been doing synchronised aerial swimming! Douglas’ composition to my mind (and ear) was entirely successful in its aim – the long harmonics from Curro on the violin, the bell-like notes from Cassomenos on piano, the floaty sound of Arkinstall’s clarinet, all combined to create a sense of airiness.
Then we had Warp and Weft, an enthralling work from Luke Speedy-Hutton. This was another collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria from 2018, this time inspired by the Roger Kemp tapestries on the walls of the Great Hall at the NGV. Speedy-Hutton told us that Kemp had not wanted to explain his art, but wanted the audience to make up their own minds, and I think this is also what Speedy-Hutton wanted for his music. However, Kemp had written about his relationships with the weavers and their process as they wove his designs, and Speedy-Hutton captured this most effectively in music.
The closing work on the program comprised selections from Nervous by Thomas Green, originally created as part of a larger-scale collaboration with the sculptor Heather B Swann and other performers for the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in 2016. Soprano Astrid Connelly was accompanied by Plexus in three songs from Green’s work I See You, Buttons, and The Black Sun and the Blue Moon. Connelly was the muse for both music and sculpture, and in the original staging in the NGA Connelly interacted with the sculptures, portraying the complexity of relationships between visual impairment, albinism and womanhood. For this McClelland performance, Swann gave dispensation to a performance without the sculptures, which began with an electronic introduction to I See You, a mellifluous piece with a rhythmic background from Plexus. Connelly sang with a lovely clear voice and perfect diction, and beautiful soft high notes. In Buttons, performed with Arkinstall, the two blended beautifully. Connelly’s singing in The Black Sun and the Blue Moon was so expressive, and her top notes so floatingly exquisite, that I forgot to pay attention to her accompanying instruments. My only quibble is that it would have been even better to have the text of the songs in the program.
This was a rewarding concert that overcame any reservations about a program comprising only 21st century music, and both composers and performers merited the highly appreciative applause from the audience. Every time I hear Plexus, I am fascinated with the panoply of sound that this not-very-usual combination of just three instruments can elicit. Further, their success in collaborating with composers, other musicians and music and art institutions should be an inspiration for others in our Melbourne, Victorian and Australian musical world. I think I have become a Plexus groupie.
Monica Curro has planned what looks like being a stellar series of ten concerts for Music at McClelland in 2024, and has managed to entice some of Australia’s best ensembles. I can think of no better way of spending a third Sunday of the month than a walk through the sculpture gardens and/or a visit to the gallery, lunch at the very good café, and then a concert. The 2024 program is available at https://mcclelland.org.au/events/musicatmcclelland.
Kristina Macrae reviewed “Plexus: Perspectives”, performed by Monica Curro, violin; Philip Arkinstall, clarinet; Stefan Cassomenos, piano; and Astrid Connelly, soprano, as part of the Music at McClelland Series on Sunday, November 19, 2023.