Music Review: Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, 2 June 2013, Fitzroy Town Hall

Before beginning this review, be alerted to the next Arcko concert in the on the 19th and 20th October this year.  In line with Arcko’s mission of performing Australian works that have had very limited exposure, conductor Timothy Phillips is programming an all Australian program for string orchestra.  If the concert can be held in the Reading Room of the Fitzroy Town Hall it will be a knockout.  The acoustic of the Reading Room loves strings.  If you like string music, this is the place to hear it, especially with the top players Phiillips engages for his concerts

The recent Arcko concert was dedicated to Nigel Butterley AM, Arcko’s Honorary Patron and (I hope he doesn’t mind) one of Australia’s grandfathers of modern music.  We were fortunate to have Nigel Butterley at the concert to talk about each work as they were about to played.  A theme of inspiration by architecture underpinned the program.

The concert began with Veils (199) by Liza Lim and inspired by the Gothic revival ANZ bank building in Melbourne’s Collins Street.  The structure of Lim’s piece seemed built around a series of notes slowly passed around from one instrument to another, rather in the style of a medieval paraphrase mass where the composer takes a Gregorian chant, stretches each note out and weaves lines of voices around it.  A Gothic reference? With a different ‘gothic’ take, Lim created a soundscape of Hammeresque sound effects—dramatic flares, eerie shimmer.  While the sense of parody there was, in no way did Veils descend into corny or cheap effect.  The extended techniques used on the instruments were convincing in that Lim asked for and got sounds that could not be achieved acoustically in any other way and it all sounded intelligent and purposeful.  Much credit to pianist Peter Dumsday for his handling of intricate, rosined fishing line to raise unearthly moans from the depths of his piano.

The other architecturally derived work in the concert was Butterley’s Laudes, (1963) four movements inspired by different churches he encountered on early travels in Europe.  Laudes was his first major commission on returning to Australia.  In his introduction Butterley reminding us that he always looks for something to give each of his works a starting point, an inspiration.  The four churches represented received different treatments and, as he intended, Butterley was entirely successful in using a smallish ensemble to create a more spacious orchestral sound.  His response to the 12th Century Apse at Norwich Cathedral reminded me strongly the themes Edwin Astley wrote for The Saint and Danger Man TV shows and I did wonder if there was something in the English musical waters of the time that got to Butterley while he was there.

Interior of Norwich Cathedral

Interior of Norwich Cathedral (Wikipedia)

The inspiration for Butterley’s Forest 1 (1990 for viola and piano) and Forest 2 (1990 for trumpet and piano) came from his intense response to the sculptures of Giacometti, particularly for their strong, timeless verticality.

I’m always happy to see the viola getting an outing, especially when Phoebe Green is playing.  Interestingly Butterley explained that he felt the differences between the viola and piano as instruments made them potentially incompatible and he explored this point of difference at the outset. While the two instruments began on separate courses they came together powerfully in later unison and octave passages and exploded together in great bursts of harmonic energy.

Forest 2 had the gestures of a bluesy Clifford Brown trumpet solo performance with the piano working a strong harmonic, but not absolutely tonal accompaniment that almost swung.  Pianist Peter Dumsday has the technique and sensitivity to deliver any modern music style and no doubt could have swung it if Butterley wanted.  Bruno Siketa’s trumpet playing has warmth and direction that survived having to use finely adjusted muting techniques on his trumpet.

Butterley’s other offering, Of Wood (1995) was for solo cello, inspired by and written for David Pereira.  A beautiful work, it was extraordinarily enhanced by the acoustic of the Reading Room which loves the cello and rightfully loves the playing of Caerwen Martin.  A soft, end of phrase was taken by the room and given an extra shimmer, while bolder gestures filled the whole room with glowing energy.  This was magic.

A major treat in this concert was Invisible Dances (2006) by Tim Dargaville who knows how to use the fewest of notes to the greatest effect without resorting to minimalism per se.  Dargaville gives us dance with unrelenting rhythms and pulses very tightly controlled by his choice of melodic material.  No scattergun or grab bag of effects and devices here.  I was really impressed by his insight into instrumental pairings.  An extended duet between violin and percussion had the violinist softly whistle a passage or two, which added a slight touch of whimsy, but was too ethereal to be cheesy.  The duet between flute and harp (perhaps the most tired and tiresome combination of loveliness) was authentically and convincingly beautiful.  Again using melodic cells of just a few notes Dargaville gave the players an almost romantic connection, which is quite unexpected in contemporary music—and it worked.  Often, dance-inspired music begs to be, well, danced to, or seems to be music in search of a film.  No such sense here.  Invisible Dances stretches its legs in its own right.  I look forward to hearing more of this series from Tim Dargaville.

I would readily attend this concert all over again.  Under Timothy Phillips’ mature and low-interference direction, all these works made a fine partnership with an outstanding ensemble, in a venue seemingly built for a band this size.  More please.


Helen Gifford: Time and Time Again (1981). Saturday 1st only.  Reviewed in ??

Liza Lim: Veils for mixed septet (1999) Sunday only

Nigel Butterley:

Forest 1 for viola and piano (1990)

Forest 2 for trumpet and piano (1990)

Of Wood for solo cello (1995) Sunday only

Laudes for ensemble in 4 movements (1963)

  1. The Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (6th Century)
  2. The Apse, Norwich Cathedral (12th Century)
  3. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (16th Century)
  4. The Church of Reconciliation, Community of Taizé, Burgundy (1962)

Tim Dargaville: Invisible Dances for ensemble (2006)

Nicholas M Tolhurst


One thought on “Music Review: Arcko Symphonic Ensemble, 2 June 2013, Fitzroy Town Hall

  1. Reblogged this on Freud in Oceania and commented:
    Two reasons for reblogging this: To introduce an interesting and well written blog/magazine reviewing contemporary arts in Australia. Secondly Nick Tolhurst’ thoughtful review of Arcko’s concert at the Fitzroy Town Hall about a week ago. I think I will go to the next one later this year.

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