Monica Curro guides us through the art music world

Commissioning new Australian music

BY MARLENE RADICE

We would like to welcome Marlene in her first story as a CutCommon contributor.

 

The prospect of performing experimental music can often be intimidating, which perhaps is why musician Monica Curro has come to be held in high esteem. By rising to the challenge not only of performing but also commissioning and championing new music, Monica represents the best of what Australian music can be.

Monica has long been a leading figure in Australia’s music scene. Through her work in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and her trio PLEXUS, Monica’s career has been and continues to be as diverse and eclectic as the music she plays, navigating the dual worlds of classical and contemporary art music.

Monica is an active performer and commissioner of new music, but she is also on the board of directors for the Australian Youth Orchestra, tutors orchestral and chamber music programs, and has taught violin and viola at the University of Melbourne, Victorian College of the Arts, and the Australian National Academy of Music. Her dedication to promoting contemporary Australian compositions and exposing audiences to international repertoire is the driving force behind her work as violinist in PLEXUS, in which she performs alongside Philip Arkinstall on clarinet and Stefan Cassomenos on piano.

As a part of this year’s Southbank Series, PLEXUS will present nine world premieres across three concerts, exclusively commissioned from Australian composers. The first of these concerts, Phantasms, will be held at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 29 May. This concert encapsulates a diverse range of sound worlds through compositions which explore how sound can represent dramatic emotions, landscapes, fantasies and dreams.

Phantasms is set to be full of challenging music that places a lot of PLEXUS’ contemporary repertoire within a historical context. This approach to performing new music serves to encourage a range of audience members to come and experience new and old compositions within a single program.

When I asked Monica about why PLEXUS made this decision, she explained: “It’s harder to sell [contemporary music] to audiences because they have no familiar frame of reference”.

“For example, if we were playing Beethoven or Schubert, which they already know and feel safe with, that may be the thing that interests them in attending the concert. This means that we have to win their trust so that they know to expect a meaningful artistically, and philosophically engaging, experience; and a high standard performance no matter whose music we play.”

This approach to programming navigates the idea that conservative audiences in Australia discourage performers from taking creative risks or deviating from cultural ideas of what classical music is or could be.

Monica highlights that PLEXUS addresses an audience’s potential trepidation about hearing new music by creating fresh new programs. Creating programs that encompass the breadth of contemporary Australian compositions alongside renowned international works. This upcoming concert will premiere new works by Australian composers Brigid Burke, Andrew Ford and Andrian Pertout, featured alongside Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Gernot Wolfgang’s Reflections (commissioned by the Verdehr Trio in 1999).

“This year, we wanted to still play new music but now it’s only three pieces per concert, alongside a Verdehr commission,” Monica explains.

“So often, new music is premiered and then shelved, so we want to celebrate the Verdehr legacy by playing their pieces, too. And now we are including something old, mainly because it’s great music, but also as an excuse to collaborate with some of our gorgeous friends! I suppose it’s more of a smorgasbord, and the new format keeps it fresh.”

Performing and commissioning new music is a core value for Monica. “It’s important work because composers need performers to give them a voice, a platform from which to tell their stories, and it’s often difficult for most of them to get their music heard.”

“Our work pays homage to the Verdehr Trio from Michigan, who commissioned over 200 works for the violin/clarinet/piano combination, where previously only eight works existed. We have added 73 new works in our three and a half years of existence.”

Their role as performers is to serve the music they play, as Monica states: “We are the vehicles, the conduits, the servants”.

She asserts that it is important for new compositions to be performed in a manner as true to the score as possible and encourages works that test her skill and challenge her as a performer.

“We have all reached a standard of playing which means we can meet most technical and interpretive challenges that a composer can throw at us, so we have a good chance of giving them a clear voice. This work keeps us all thinking and learning and striving, and I know that both my playing and confidence have improved noticeably because of it, which feeds positively into my main job in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and all my other playing.

“The other great aspect of this work is how the audience react to, and are affected and inspired by, this music that they have never heard before. They listen with different, fresh, open ears. That’s why it’s important that we earn their trust and respect.”

Experimental music can be intimidating for many performers. Monica’s advice to performers looking to crack the code is that “every composer is, of course, different. But they are all human beings, and are all schooled in notated music practices”.

Monica says there are three challenges to identify:

 

  1. The narrative

What story is the composer trying to tell?

  1. The structure of the piece

To recognise architecture, patterns, gestures, the thematic DNA of the piece.

  1. The voice leading

The most important thing for clarity – to identify which of our voices has prominence and when, otherwise it’s as nonsensical as three people shouting different words at the same time.

 

“I think the only assumption that we challenge is that new music can be indecipherable. It’s our job to tell the audience the composer’s story clearly. It’s all about narrative, conveying meaning, intention, aesthetic, mood. If everyone in the room gets nothing out of a piece then we were mumbling when we spoke to the room.”

 

See Plexus in Phantasms at the Melbourne Recital Centre on 29 May.


Image supplied.

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