Live Review: Cinemusica

Dylan Henderson reviews a "kaleidoscopic mix"



Australian Chamber Orchestra and Synergy Percussion
Adelaide Town Hall, 12 April


After garnering impressive reviews from across the country, the final concert in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Cinemusica tour, held at the Adelaide Town Hall, continued to live up to the hype. Cinemusica saw the ACO team up with one of the nation’s most illustrious percussion ensembles Synergy Percussion to perform music that appeared in three of the most important films in cinema history: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999). Rather than an arbitrary selection of music from the silver screen, this was a judiciously constructed program which wasn’t so much concerned with presenting a chronological history of film music as it was an attempt to enhance audience appreciation of 20th Century classical works through their association with motion pictures. This kaleidoscopic mix elevated the role of the percussion and placed it on an equal level with the strings, and the results more than merit a few superlatives.

Iannis Xenakis is not usually the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of film music, and yet the five-minute Voile provided the perfect beginning. Right from the opening cluster chord, intense dissonances and undulating glissandi established an atmosphere of terror and perfectly foreshadowed the malevolence to come.

Not wanting to test the patience of the audience, however, this quickly segued into three selections from Thomas Newman’s understated and minimalist score for American Beauty, presented here in an arrangement by Cyrus Meurant. When listening to this music in a live performance without the visuals it was composed for, it seems unthinkable that Newman, who comes from one of the most distinguished families in the history of film music, has never won an Oscar (he has been nominated 13 times; American Beauty missed out in 2000 to Dun Tan for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Under Richard Tognetti’s skillful direction, the ACO proved convincingly that this music does have a life of its own beyond the screen and could someday occupy a rightful place among conventional core repertoire. The three selections offered here all sparkled with a clarity and grace that is befitting of an ensemble of this calibre. Despite being placed behind the strings, the haunting fragility of the piano melody in Angela Undress was captured with a wonderful bell-like tone from Benjamin Martin. The balance here between solo piano and accompanying strings was excellent.

The instantly recognisable marimba riff of Dead Already, over which Kevin Spacey’s character apathetically announces his impending death, proved equally absorbing. Each successive variation was heightened by Bobby Singh’s contributions on tabla, creating an infectious rhythmic drive.

The film’s floating bag scene, where Ricky Fitts observes an ‘entire life behind things’, is probably one of the most memorable moments in modern cinema – in large part due to Newman’s score. I felt the orchestra were a little too loud here, and some of the subtlety was lost in the harmony changes that underpin the piano solo.

Interestingly, the two styles of film music exhibited by Newman and Herrmann in this concert are polar opposites. Newman’s music is very restrained and atmospheric – his score for American Beauty heralded a new age in film music history, which saw it move away from the highly thematic, ostentatious music of the past to function on a much more subliminal, unobtrusive level, telling a story with deliberately fewer elements. Conversely, the music of Bernard Herrmann is very much in the Eastern European Romantic tradition of Korngold – incisive, intense, and thematic.

Herrmann is one of the greatest names in classic cinema, working with directors such as Orson Welles, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, and Brian de Palma, but it is his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock for which he is best known – a creative partnership perhaps only rivalled by Steven Spielberg and John Williams. Of these collaborations, Herrmann’s music for Psycho is the most instantly recognisable, credited with finishing a film Hitchcock was ready to cut for television.

Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra once again returned the audience to a state of terror. Tognetti’s offering was one of impeccable cohesion. Through winding chromaticism and sweeping crescendos and diminuendos, it was difficult to fault this immaculate performance. In less competent hands, the shrieking violin glissandos that accompany the iconic shower scene could have easily descended into melodramatic cliché, but this was a genuinely frightening performance, like fingernails scraped across a blackboard.

Returning to the music of Xenakis, Psappha provided a welcome change of instrumentation and showcased Synergy Percussion in exceptional form. This was an absolutely electric performance, featuring moments of astounding virtuosity from Timothy Constable, Joshua Hill, and Bree van Reyk. If I was pressed to pick a favourite from Cinemusica, this would be it. All three musicians were in a state of total immersion, masterfully dissecting the complex mathematical formulae that underpin the work. Their performance was made all the more memorable through their ability to keep the audience entirely captivated throughout the many dramatic silences.

Synergy Percussion’s artistic director Timothy Constable had the unenviable task of composing the eponymous work of this concert tour, music which would serve as a unifying link between the diverse range of styles encompassed in the program. Adopting a layout and instrumentation almost identical to the Bartók to follow, Cinemusica – Two Movements for Percussion and Strings was not a concerto for percussion, but rather an exercise in cinematic orchestration. Despite being written purely for the concert hall, the antiphonal interaction of strings and percussion created a highly filmic sonic experience. I hope Constable’s work gets performed in settings outside of this tour – it deserves to.

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is one of the most interesting works of the 20th Century, and it is a shame it is so infrequently performed. It was a special pleasure to hear historical keyboard performance practice expert Neal Peres da Costa perform the spidery celeste part. Benjamin Martin also deserves a mention for his excellent playing in the demanding and prominent piano part. Unsurprisingly, this performance was captivating from beginning to end, and provided the perfect mix of chilling subtlety and empowering catharsis to conclude the evening.

This concert asked two fundamental questions of aesthetics: can music composed solely for the silver screen stand alongside music written purely for the concert hall? And can both foster an appreciation of each other in this context? Based on the experience of this concert alone, the answer to both those questions is a resounding yes. It’s been 30 years since the ACO and Synergy Percussion last collaborated. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait this long for them to do it again.


Image supplied. Credit: Andrew Quilty.

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