The Greek myth of Icarus and his ill-fated escape from imprisonment in Crete was never an intentional inspiration for Australian composer Andrew Ford. As he describes it, the story of the man who flew too close to the sun, melting his wings made of feathers and wax and plunging to his death in the ocean, became an unplanned theme in his work over the last 25 years. The culmination of this work was a record titled Icarus, featuring all five compositions inspired by the myth.
Thursday’s concert featured three of the Icarus works, as well as arrangements of two pieces of music from Ford’s most recent opera, Rembrandt’s Wife (currently playing at the Malthouse Theatre) and a four-movement work for solo oboe. The musicians were predominantly students at the Australian National Academy of Music, where Ford is Resident Composer for 2009.
The concert opened with a short work called ‘Hymn to the Sun’, part of the Icarus series. It is apparently based on a monody by the second century poet Mesomedes of Crete. Scored for clarinet (Sam Curkpatrick), celesta (David Paterson) and harp (Jessica Fotinos), it creates an atmosphere of powerful heat with long, intense high-pitched notes. In the impressive acoustics of the South Melbourne Town Hall, the timbres of the three instruments merged to the point where it was difficult to tell where one finished and another began, thanks to the admirable ensemble work of the musicians.
Rachel Cashmore’s performance of ‘Asides on the Oboe’ provided welcome and skilful interludes to the concert; written in four parts (inspired by Wallace Stevens’ four-part poem of the same title), the movements were split up and played in between the other works on the program. Cashmore’s sound is clean and full, and her lower register has a surprising depth. She captured the improvisatory nature of the piece very well without compromising on accuracy.
The other solo work in this concert was Kristian Winther’s performance of ‘Like Icarus Ascending’ for violin. Ford, who provided a brief introduction for each piece, conjured up the image of grainy black and white films from the early twentieth century of people attempting to fly. We hear the frustration of ‘false starts’ in the form of angry bursts of sound later in the piece. The opening, however, is a long,almost imperceptible drone which Winther executed with excellent control and a sense of uneasy stillness. But in the large space of the town hall, Winther’s introverted style meant that he didn’t always reach his audience, who were sometimes straining to hear him. Nevertheless, he is a captivating performer and if his audience was straining it was because he drew them into the sound world he was creating.
‘Icarus Drowning’ is a reply to ‘Like Icarus Ascending’ and a finale to Ford’s Icarus series. Composed for a chamber ensemble including string quartet, clarinet and bass clarinet, percussion, celesta and harp, it was premiered in the Abercrombie Caves at the Kowmung Music Festival in New South Wales, together with ‘Hymn to the Sun’. Partially taking inspiration from Pieter Bruegel’s painting Landscape With The Fall of Icarus, the work explores the idea of Icarus’ life flashing past him as he falls to his death: we hear parts of the other Icarus works as a kind of parallel of this idea. Yet thereis no suggestion of his watery death as Ford sticks to the dryness and heat that characterise ‘Hymn to the Sun’. It is the journey down to death that we hear rather than the drowning itself. The offstage percussion at the end of the work must have sounded wonderful in the depths of the Abercrombie Caves.
‘The Tears of Geertje Dircx’ and ‘Chorales from an Ox Life’ are small ensemble arrangements of music from Rembrandt’s Wife. Clarinet duo Sam Curkpatrick and Ashley Smith’s performance of ‘The Tears of Geertje Dircx’ was an example of the way in which effective staging can enhance a classical music concert. The clarinettists stood facing each other at opposite ends of the stage and their notes bounced off one another and seemed to be thrown back and forth between the two musicians.
String trio Christa Jardine (viola), Richard Vaudrey (cello) and Douglas Rutherford (double bass) presented a moving interpretation of ‘Chorales from an Ox Life’, a gentle but longing dance full of quiet, melancholy harmonics and a sense of peaceful resignation. The performance of this work was a high point in the concert; the soothing dance rhythm and subdued sadness contrasted with the high tension of the other works played that evening.
It is a shame that a group of such talented and dedicated young musicians playing music by an Australian composer does not attract a bigger audience in Melbourne, although it was an appreciative one. Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see the students’ respect for Ford and his music, and to see ANAM alive and more than well after the upheavals of 2008!
Australian National Academy of Music presents
Conductor Andrew Ford
Venue: South Melbourne Town Hall
Date/Time: 7pm, Thursday 23 April