Whimsical, Intelligent and Difficult. This is how Don Immel, on the Trombone for Three, a unique ensemble seeking to challenge and expand the chamber music space with their combination of brass and guitar, characterised both the final piece on offer at the Melbourne Recital Centre and, by extension, the players themselves.
It was this piece, a premiere performance of ‘Voodoo Sonnets’ – written for the group by James Ledger – which best showcased what they are trying to achieve. An amalgam of a Shakespearean sonnet and the stylings of Jimi Hendrix does not leap easily to mind – nor ear. I talk not just of the imagination here, for this is not easy-listening background music but music which demands you sit up and take notice, which demands that you actively engage with it to get your reward. But that reward is substantial and deep indeed and, while we may be talking of intelligence here, don’t think that there is much in the way of elitism here. To tell the truth, as something of a musical babe in the woods, I was hard pressed to work out exactly how the concept of a sonnet worked in to the piece. And I’d love to know, but the beauty of the whimsy interwoven through was that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t penetrate the finer details.
The evening opened with Fay Wang’s ‘Steps to the Unconsciousness’ – a bold choice, as the piece which would likely sounds least familiar to those not already in tune with what Three is trying to do in the chamber music space. As it was it prepared the ground beautifully for what was to follow, with ‘Pinwheel’ from Wally Gunn expanding on some of the themes from that opening piece in a more openly rock/pop direction, enhanced by Ken Murray’s move from acoustic to electric guitar. That move encouraged Ken to compose ‘Three Sketches’ which was next on the programme and which, as he put it, the other members of the trio graciously allowed him to bring in to the performance. And well they should have done; interesting works in their own right, each ‘sketch’ brought out interesting interplays between the two brass and one (six-) string instrument, especially the Spanish-inspired ‘798’.
In such a magnificent space as the Salon at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and kicking of the Spotlight series, Three brought us an evening of music that was difficult but open, intelligent yet intuitively understandable, whimsical yet purposeful. With their debut album released last year and another on the way before heading to perform in North America later in the year, Three are well on their way to achieving their goal of cutting-edge chamber music that resonates with modern audiences.