It can be a silly question to ask what a piece of music is “about” because any work of art simply represents what it is and shouldn’t need any external meaning applied to it. Or at least that’s what the philosopher Theodor Adorno believed.
However, in the case of Cathy Milliken Ediacaran Fieldspremiered by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra over the weekend, it certainly helped to know something about the ideas she has explicitly incorporated into this alluringly beautiful new work.
The clue is in its title, though only paleontologists and avid visitors to the Flinders Ranges will know that. Near Parachilna is the new Nilpena Ediacara National Park, the site of extremely rare fossils that date back 600 million years, when multicellular organisms first appeared on earth.
Imagine gorgonians, sea squirts and primitive jellyfish, because that’s what the Ediacaran fauna apparently looked like.
Before the performance, Milliken explained how she was “captivated by these beautiful, soft-bodied animals drifting happily in the ocean”, and how her new piece invites us to look back on “an erotic world that teamed up with life. “so that we can reflect on our own place in history.
Ediacaran Fields is very pictorial to begin with. Pulsating, undulating figurations are heard through the orchestra that combine into an ever-changing tangle of moving energy.
The most striking touches were when the instruments gradually slid downward to depict these creatures gliding across the seabed and sending up, so to speak, puffs of mud as they came to rest. What a wonderfully jeweled underwater world Milliken has created, and with a sophistication that would embarrass any film composer.
Later in the piece, militaristic bursts of snare drum and trumpet signal the arrival of Cambrian predators usurping this peaceful paradise. Armed with pincers and claws, Milliken explained, these nasty invaders usher in a new biological era in which animals begin to kill and eat each other – marking the beginning of all modern life forms, including ourselves. Lots to contemplate.
Milliken is no more guilty of anthropomorphizing nature than Saint-Saëns is in animal carnival. But it is with good reason: in Ediacaran Fields, she implores us to consider this ancient cemetery of fossils as a totem of peace, and it is a beautiful sentiment.
Rising to the challenge was a very lively performance that brought his vision to life. Under the direction of Benjamin Northey, the ASO delivered the score with great care and precision. To add atmosphere, 100 unsuspecting spectators had to bang rocks in the queue at the start and end. A fun participation idea, which had mixed success – people weren’t quite sure how to create a wave of sound rather than just a snap.
The concert, titled Serenityproved utterly worthy of her name when Emily Sun portrayed Vaughan Williams The rising lark. Previously, this Sydney-born violinist was only heard as a chamber musician (she played in a trio last year with Nicolas Fleury and Amir Farid for Musica Viva), and what a discovery it was to hear her with an orchestra . This divine performance began from the quietest whisper, her violin rising so sweetly and eloquently above a delicate shimmer of ASO strings. It was as if time had truly stopped and we were listening to the sounds of nature. Guests of violinists can play The rising lark work very well, but the poetic evocation of Sun made this performance precious.
Speaking of Saint-Saëns, his Presentation and Rondo Capriccioso gave an admiring audience at City Hall the opportunity to hear Sun perform a second time. In this contrasting and showy piece, she again showed a delicate touch but paired it with blistering speed and genuine power in a performance of complete artistry. Throughout the piece’s whirlwind of scales, arpeggios and triple-stops, Sun’s execution was flawless and his judgment impeccable. Just watching his left hand dance athletically across the sidelines was a sight to behold.
Thanks to Northey and the ASO for following it through to the smallest details of the timing. It was an ideal partnership.
As challenging as it all turned out, the main work that people had undoubtedly come to hear was yet to come. by Mussorgsky Pictures at an exhibition, in Ravel’s much-loved orchestration, is a colossal work and intensely colored in every way that Victor Hartmann’s modest little watercolors that inspired it are not. The disconnect between the music and the visual source is staggering, at least in terms of scale; but as we know, Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an exhibition for solo piano without worrying about what Ravel, among a dozen other orchestrators, would do with it later.
Northey and the ASO delivered a neat, tense and terrific performance that is an interesting departure from the usual heavy symphonic renditions that can artificially inflate this work. All of its familiar contours were given a pithy sharpness, most notably the promenade theme itself, which evoked a deliberate wandering from paint to paint.
Gnomethe pitifully deformed gnome who clumps unsightly, was satisfyingly gruff and sinister, and The old castle was magically melancholic thanks to Bernie Lagana’s soft and pleasant playing on solo saxophone – a spell fell on the auditorium at that moment.
Lightness may not be a quality that immediately comes to mind with Picturesbut Northey lent an amusing playfulness to the bickering children in Tuileries and the pleasure of chatting in Unhatched Chick Ballet. It seemed so exactly appropriate, and her fresh, modern ideas were welcomed here.
Luckily, the Great Gate of kyiv also held up well – although doubts about the future of the actual structure have crossed my mind given current world affairs. Every detail was articulately shaped, though some momentum seemed to be missing in this large final image and led to some timing errors in the closing bars.
Otherwise, it was an exceptionally polished performance, and quite the best I have heard from this admirably accomplished conductor from Melbourne. Absent was the weighty power Belarusian conductor Dmitry Matvienko brought so sensationally to Rach 2 in May. But Northey is also convincing and certainly shows that he can achieve wonderful results from ASO, in this case on a very wide range of repertoires.
Serenity was presented at Adelaide City Hall on June 24 and 25. Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s next Master Series concert will take place BewitchedJuly 29 and 30. This weekend, the orchestra presents the She speaks mini festival, highlighting the music of female composers.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.