BY LEAH BLANKENDAAL
Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
Carlton Church of All Nations, 19 March
In its first concert of 2016, Arcko Symphonic Ensemble paid special tribute to its hometown, Melbourne. Four pieces by well-known Victorian voices were performed to an audience squeezed into the Carlton Church of All Nations. Each work drew inspiration from personal and sometimes peculiar places; from both Eastern and Western spiritualities, to the terror of Emily Dickinson’s nightmarish maelstrom, to the medical records of family. Not skipping a beat, Arcko also used this opportunity to launch its second CD Like A Maelstrom (The Music of Brendan Colbert).
Tim Dargaville’s Kolam was an interesting exploration of how South Indian rhythm principles can be applied to an art music setting. Named for the ritualistic mandala-making practice of the Tamil culture, it is Dargaville’s fourth and largest exploration of this theme. I’m hesitant to pass judgement on this piece without a second hearing, or without hearing Dargaville’s other musings for smaller ensemble. The complexity of Carnatic rhythm is difficult to translate to an orchestral setting and, whilst it is an intellectually stimulating process to do so, the resulting wash of sound obstructed what I assume would be a particularly nuanced score. Although creating such an immersive experience can be a beautiful technique in and of itself, in this instance I suspect the intricacies of the score were lost, at least on first hearing.
By contrast, Gyger’s Ingressa was probably the work that needed the least programmatic explanation. Immediately engaging and fiendishly difficult, Ingressa is an example of a work that, whilst incredibly complex, is also wholly satisfying just to listen to. It is interesting to learn the work is based on the Beneventan chant Maria vidit angelum, an ‘ingressa’ or entrance hymn for Easter Sunday, though this detail is not necessary for pure enjoyment of the piece. Electric technique from percussionists Amy Valent Curlis and Peter Neville made this performance of Ingressa particularly satisfying.
If Ingressa’s program notes were optional for enjoyment, then I would have felt almost cheated had I not received them for Caerwen Martin’s X-Ray Baby. This piece is becoming almost a part of Arcko’s standard repertoire: it is the title work of the group’s first album and was premiered by the ensemble in 2013. At the heart of X-Ray Baby is extraordinarily candid source material: X-ray and ultrasound images of Martin’s daughter. This material is used to form a graphic score, from which the orchestra creates an extended improvisation. The result here was interesting and fresh, with the energy of a work that never quite sounds the same way twice.
Last and largest on the program was Like a Maelstrom. Premiered in 2015, this second performance of Colbert’s double concerto for piano and trumpet gave the ensemble a chance to launch the live recording they made of the work’s premiere. At 28 minutes long, Like a Maelstrom took its title seriously, hammering the audience with a relentless onslaught of sound for almost the entirety of that time. I would confess that at times this wasn’t easy, however this is not necessarily a bad thing: there is room in the canon for difficult music, that challenges and renders the audience uncomfortable. That Like a Maelstrom was able to evoke such a strong response speaks to the power it has as a work.
At the core of Arcko’s philosophy as an ensemble is the need to preserve Australian works for future generations. One of the ways this ensemble has achieved its mission is by giving second and third performances to works that have already been premiered. However, increasingly, this also means recording music so that it might be distributed and archived. Like a Maelstrom, both the CD and the work, has therefore become an important part in the ensemble’s developing narrative.