It is not often that a concert chiefly comprising new music is granted a standing ovation. The core members of the Melbourne contemporary chamber ensemble, PLEXUS: Monica Curro (violin), Philip Arkinstall (clarinet) and Stefan Cassomenos (piano), are also to be congratulated on the astonishing support they have given to composers since launching in 2014. Commissioning over seventy composers and premiering twenty-two new works in that year is no mean feat.
Within a stated aim of an “ongoing commitment to synthesizing creative links across multidisciplinary artistic networks”, their entrepreneurship provides audiences with a range of stimulating musical experiences, and this program certainly had more than its fair share of excitement. Cellist Michelle Wood and double bassist Damien Eckersley augmented the trio for the first half of the program in a world premiere performance of Three Songs for the Lord by Argentinian Berlin-based composer José Hernán Cibils and an arrangement by Stefan Cassomenos of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. As the title of these two pieces suggest, singing was an essential component.
In Cibils’ appealing and accessible Three Songs for the Lord extended instrumental passages were interspersed throughout verses by G. K. Chesterton, the libretto of Turandot and San Juan de la Cruz’s Cántico Espiritual. Essentially simple in spirit, with unison, canon and repetition being used extensively, there was also inventive detail and changes of mood that displayed the skills of the players both as soloists and members of a closely blended ensemble. Since Liane Keegan’s return to Australia in 2012, Melbourne audiences have had many opportunities to fall in love with her compelling contralto voice. Fine-grained and dark-hued, it is an instrument of rare individuality and appeal, well suited to evoking the spiritual dimension of Cibils’ music. The way her voice morphed into the sound of the clarinet in the first song and lingered on the slow, sustained last words of the Turandot piece “And every night it’s born and every day it dies!” was wonderfully atmospheric. The fine pianissimo opening by the violin and slow concluding passages added to the enchantment of this second song. A tale of loss and suffering found a happy ending in the final song with its upbeat instrumental choruses and hint of Argentinian flavor.
Strauss’s Four Last Songs is at the pinnacle of works for soprano and orchestra and best known in its gloriously lush original setting. Its popularity has inspired many different arrangements. Strauss himself provided a version for chamber orchestra, which is often performed. James Ledger made some pertinent remarks regarding the validity of arrangements when writing about his own for thirteen instruments and soprano: “…arrangements… are often regarded as poor cousins of the original… An arrangement should be seen as a separate version in its own right.” Stefan Cassomenos’ version for quintet and soprano is a very different creature from the original but the sonic world offered certainly had its rewards, especially when performed such sensitivity. Monica Curro’s sweet tone, considered phrasing and dynamic progressions were especially true to Strauss’s emotional soundscape in the passages for solo violin of Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep). Deborah Cheetham’s immersion in the text and her capacity to sustain long phrases and soar up to the top notes in a voice that opened out in full beauty was impressive indeed. Her singing of the final words of Im Abendrot (At Sunset) “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (Is this, perhaps, death?), expressed the pathos of calm acceptance with moving simplicity and sincerity.
During the first half of the concert the members of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir sat on the steps behind the performers, waiting to sing in Stefan Cassomenos’ major new work, Requiem for the End of Time. The Latin text of the requiem mass, featuring choir, soprano and contralto, is set alongside a bass-baritone delivering several passages from the Book of Revelation, possibly written by John of Patmos.
Daniel Carison chanted, declaimed and sang the words of John in all their prophetic passion. Despite a problematic amplification system, his naturally strong, resonant baritone, excellent diction and dramatic style conveyed this extraordinary text with assertive authority. Deborah Cheetham and Liane Keegan joined the RMP Choir as the voices of angels. In Part II. Sequentia, Keegan sang alternating verses of the Dies Irae with the choir, her warm, natural style imbuing a simple, repeated tune with quiet prayerfulness. The final verse of this section was one of the highlights of the evening as her pianissimo sounded exquisitely against the delicate syncopation of the piano. The contrasting “Amen” that followed her “dona eis requiem” was given a rousing jazzy crescendo by the choir.
Much of the variety in this and other movements was to be found in the imaginative orchestration. It was amazing just how much sound could come from the five instruments, especially when the singers were in full flight; they came close to approximating the effect of a full orchestra.
All three soloists joined the choir for Part III. Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, with Deborah Cheetham displaying impressive vocal athleticism for the high notes. The final section continued to make heavy demands on all performers, who met the challenges admirably.
As conductor of this long and complex piece, Andrew Wailes gave clear, precise guidance, occasionally taking a cue from Cassomenos at the piano (pictured). The RMP Choir sang in a disciplined and generally confident manner, doing justice to a substantial new work that deserves wide exposure.
Plexus Squared: Revelations was performed at Deakin Edge on August 11.