Review: ‘Pearl among the patriarchs’ – composer Kate Moore

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THE concert “Movers and Shakers” at Fitters’ Workshop might have been subtitled ‘a pearl among the patriarchs”.

Cellist Geoffrey Gartner (r) with Peelman and Moore. Photo Judith Crispin
Cellist Geoffrey Gartner (r) with Peelman and Moore. Photo Judith Crispin

One of only two featured women composers in this festival, Kate Moore delivered the high point of yesterday’s program. Sandwiched between Peter Sculthorpe’s over-reaching Island Songs and John Adams’ arch-minimalist Shaker Loops, Moore’s Velvet was a tiny diamond in a sea of testosterone.

“Movers and Shakers” opened with Brian Howard’s Full Fathom Five, for large ensemble, after Jackson Pollock and William Shakespeare. This modernism work was a lexicon of late 20th century language—tritone sonorities and Schoenbergian gestures. Roland Peelman conducted magnificently, often resembling a Tim Burton character waving long expressive fingers against a Mephistophelean soundtrack.

Saxophonist Amy Dickson gave a stunning performance of Peter Sculthorpe’s Island Songs, for saxophone and ensemble, her flute-like arioso tone soaring above the ensemble. Dickson’s intonation was perfect, even in the more strident ascending phrases. Ironically, the best playing of this concert was given to the weakest piece. Sculthorpe’s songs were weakened by cultural confusion—indigenous clapsticks, African drum rhythms and quasi-Eastern motifs unfolded like a catalogue of exotic affectations. Overstatements, like his ascending cello tri-tones over undulating cymbals, grew dramatically toward no particular terminus—like a novelty staircase against a brick wall. And then the seagull calls … the most overused trope of Sculthorpe’s oeuvre.

Moore’s Velvet, for cello and piano, arrived like a breath of fresh air. Inspired by draping fabric in the paintings of Dutch masters, Velvet weaves itself from strands of additive rhythms and modal fragments. Captivating, without resorting to drama, Moore’s piece is utterly devoid of 20th century clichés. Thematic elements repeat without compromising the integrity of phrases or formal unity. Cellist Geoffrey Gartner presented a kaleidoscope of tonal colour and performed with an obvious affinity for the work. Shifting from podium to piano stool, Roland Peelman conjured a vivid piano timbres despite the difficult acoustic—bell notes, harps, an intoxicating variegation of light and shade.

A rogue music stand did not detract from the concert’s closing work—a fine performance of John Adams’, Shaker Loops, for strings. Expertly directed by Roland Peelman, the combined ensemble of New Zealand and Tinalley String Quartets expertly maintained the dramaturgy of dynamic control and rhythmic intensity over the whole form. The Fitters’ acoustic, so unsympathetic to piano, supported the sound of massed strings. Despite reservations about individual works, it was nevertheless uplifting to attend a concert in Canberra featuring composers still alive or only recently dead.

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