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ADVENTUROUS programming for the first half of the Australian String Quartet’s opening concert in its 2018 season made a U-turn in the second half.
Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D major, op 44 no 1, is a truly lovely work of “shimmering energy”, so say the program notes, along with a lively dance form and some very fancy finger-work in the last movement.
The ASQ played it with great lyricism and affection, but the stark contrast to the works in the first half made it fall flat – an anti-climax.
The two works in the first half were from the 20th century. The first was the String Quartet No 3 “Mishima”, which American composer Philip Glass wrote in 1985. In six short movements, the piece came from Glass’ score for the film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, the story of a Japanese author-turned-militia soldier, who ultimately commits a gruesome seppuku.
Perhaps a little strangely, there’s nothing Japanese about the music itself.
A brooding rhythm runs through the entire piece. Even so, there are many moods covering Mishima’s life and demise. The ASQ was well-and-truly up for the challenge, but, as with most film music, it was difficult to put it in context in the absence of the film itself.
In another slightly strange programming choice, there was no break between “Mishima” and the next offering, Australian composer Brett Dean’s String Quartet No 1 “Eclipse”, even though almost 20 years separates their creation.
“The work is not beautiful,” cellist, Sharon Grigoryan, told her audience. Indeed, it is not beautiful, not by any stretch, but it is an extraordinary exploration of a soundscape, which starts and ends with a sound almost inaudible.
Like “Mishima” it could be a film score. In fact, it is an expression in music of one of the darkest times in Australia’s history – the Tampa tragedy of 2001.
However, unlike a film score, “Eclipse” requires no context other than to know what inspired it. Its poignant sadness, even in the frantic, even scary, edgy and anxious second section pervades the whole piece.
It is a very difficult work to play, containing as it does many instances of technical challenge, dissonance, out-of-kilter rhythms, and abstract musical concepts, requiring enormous concentration and co-ordination between the players. Certainly the 18th century luthiers who made their instruments would never have imagined them being used as Brett Dean’s music demanded. The ASQ delivered superbly. It was a truly brilliant performance.