Ensemble Offspring’s most recent outing at the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre marked a welcome return to normalised music-making in the face of the overwhelming setbacks that have characterised 2020.
With a socially-distanced yet amply-sized audience of appreciative listeners along with plenty of familiar faces from the art music world in attendance, there was a pervasive sense of community that must’ve felt somewhat cathartic for many.
For the opening work – Liza Lim’s duo for clarinet and cello Inguz (1996), clarinettist Jason Noble set the scene by reciting a brief stanza from 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, touching on the work’s prevailing themes of love and fertility. A suitably intense work for an opening number, each player was afforded their own impassioned episodes, both instruments often uniting briefly before diverging into further outbursts. Momentary hints of tonality gave way to further dissonance, with the minor chords in the cello occasionally lending the music a somewhat brooding quality. Despite the challenging nature of the music, the colours on offer were never harsh or jarring, and the piece ended somewhat abruptly with an unexpected fadeout.
Kate Moore’s delicate, dreamy and lyrical Blackbird Song (2018) provided the perfect foil to the first piece. Inspired by the early morning song of a Merle noir, its startlingly effective instrumental combination of alto flute, bass clarinet and vibraphone bathed the listener in a warm sheen. Beginning as a series of fragments of steadily increasing durations, the vibraphone’s controlled sustain seemed to determine the length of each fragment, before finally leading to an extended canticle perennially hovering in the treble range. I’d heard the piece once before in an outdoor setting and had been surprised at its effectiveness without a helpful acoustic.
It was a pleasure to discover how the warmth of the Cell Block only enhanced the piece’s soundworld without muddying the clarity of its interweaving lines.
Artistic Director Claire Edwardes then gave a touching tribute to Cor Fuhler, Dutch composer and Sydney resident who died unexpectedly earlier this year. This preceded a video installation featuring the keyolin, an instrument devised by Fuhler combining a keyboard and violin, the video serving as a prelude to Fuhler’s piece Tinderbox (2014). The manic whirrings of the keyolin could not have been more contrasting with the airy sedateness of Tinderbox, which occupied an ethereal soundworld characterised by languid long tones, almost all of which were some sort of extended technique for each instrument. Morton Feldman would’ve loved it, and so did I.
Two further duos followed, the world premiere of Gerard Brophy’s ne me quitte pas for flute and vibraphone, and Kaija Saariaho’s Oi Kuu (1990) for bass flute and cello (Lamorna Nightingale and Freya Schack-Arnott). The latter work occupied a similar soundworld to Liza Lim’s piece, with hovering, gossamery textures frequently giving way to scurrying, scratching bouts of nervousness. Brophy’s piece was a poignant reminder of one of the other cataclysmic events of this year, the devastating explosion in Beirut a mere three months ago. Melancholic and wistful, the work seemed more of a lament for the ancient city, rather than any direct evocation of the event itself.
The one solo work in the program was Iannis Xenakis’ multi-percussion classic and reliable show-stopper Rebonds A (1987-89). A piece characterised by steadily multiplying rhythmic densities, Edwardes’ fluid, rounded approach ensured the polyrhythmic lines remained clear throughout the piece despite the reverberant acoustic. While most percussionists are tempted to go ‘all out’ as soon as things get busy, Claire opted to keep the full power of the drum set-up in check until its frenetic climax, earning a well-deserved standing ovation.
The final work of the evening brought back all four performers to the stage for another world premiere, Trace by British composer Christopher Fox. While it may not have exactly brought the house down, it proved a great vehicle for the ensemble to meet on equal terms, with twisting, serpentine lines, now accompanied by the crickets, confidently negotiated by all four members. Much like the first piece, it ended almost as if in mid-sentence, hopefully indicating that the Ensemble, and indeed the entire performing arts sector, has a lot more left to say.
21 November, 2020
classikON thanks guest reviewer Adam Jeffrey