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CIMF / A bizarre choice, but what fun it was

Christine Johnston and musicians. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Canberra International Music Festival / Concert 14, “Night and Dreams”, Fitters’ Workshop, May 5. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.

IF you thought music festival director Roland Peelman was drawing a long bow when he included Arnold Schönberg and HK Gruber in his “Idea of Vienna” themed festival, think again.

For not only was Schönberg’s youthful, dream-ridden opus “Transfigured Night” premiered in his home city of Vienna, but it was written in 1889, the same year that Vienna psychiatrist Sigmund Freud wrote “The Interpretation of Dreams”. The work looks to an experience in the composer’s love life that could easily be the subject of nightmares.

The second work performed, HK Gruber’s wild and wacky “Frankenstein!!”, which ventures into the subconscious work, was also created in the City of Dreams.

Concert 14 fell into two distinct halves. In the first, a regular recital, Schönberg’s popular “Transfigured Night”, Op. 4, was performed by a youthful trio of musical luminaries, Anna da Silva Chen on violin, Miles Mullin-Chivers on cello and Calvin Abdiel on piano, in an arrangement by Eduard Steuermann.

Anna da Silva Chen on violin, Miles Mullin-Chivers on cello and Calvin Abdiel on piano. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Originally composed for a string sextet, the work seems well-suited to the talents of this trio, of whom we will undoubtedly see much more and who performed this penetrating work with great restraint, never going over the top.

Composed in a more puritanical era, the “woman” tells how she bears the child of another man, while “the man” concludes, “Do not let the child you have conceived/ be a burden on your soul./That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child,/You have transfused me with splendour,/you have made a child of me”.

As if that weren’t depraved enough, the music, though richly romantic, included a chord forbidden by the Vienna Music Society.

The work is notionally divided into five sections referring to the five narrative stanzas of Richard Dehmel’s poem, “Transfigured Night”. But the many tone and key shifts as the mood wavers between darkness and light, were less obvious than the sense that the composer was grappling with deep personal issues in an ever-shifting parallel to the psychological drama of the poem.

The transition from minor to major keys as the cold, sombre tone gives way to the final transfiguration of the title was achieved with great feeling by the instrumentalists.

Schönberg remains as divisive today as even in the music world, perhaps accounting for the very modest audience of dedicated aficionados.

The second half of the program switched from Freud to Carl Jung with Gruber’s orchestral version of “Frankenstein!!” based around HC Artmann’s semi-political fantasy, “Noises, Noises, All Around – Lovely New Children’s Rhymes”.

Christine Johnston and the full ensemble. Photo: Peter Hislop.

An ensemble composed of members of Ensemble Offspring, Golden Gate Brass Quintet and Partridge Quartet, were joined by performance artist and “chansonnier” Christine Johnston, who, bewigged and splendidly attired, single-handedly transformed the Fitters Workshop respectable concert venue into a cabaret dive.

Musically based on the “Frankenstein Suite of 1971”, written by Gruber for the Vienna MOB art and tone ART Ensemble, it was later recomposed, but retains its avant-garde theatrical flavour.

Artmann partly thought of his poems as “covert political statements”, so that figures like John Wayne, Robinson Crusoe and Dr Frankenstein become metaphors for the monsters of political life and irresponsible scientists.

Gruber upturns conventional orchestral sounds by adding in toy instruments – whirly-tubes, plastic recorders, whistles and so on, to create a broad palette, “thus remaining true to the deceptive simplicity of texts whose forms at first glance suggest a naïve and innocently cheerful atmosphere”, he wrote.

Johnston tries the recorder. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Christine Johnston, known to the general public as one-half of The Kransky Sisters but also a keen collaborator with pianist Sonya Lifschitz and other contemporary Aussie musicians, seized the limelight with an extravagant, over-the top-performance of Artmann’s seemingly nonsensical nursery rhymes about mice, rats and superheroes.

She proved the perfect mistress of articulation as she intoned her way through a line-up of modern-era archetypes that would have had Jung drooling – the Frankensteins (both the doctor and his “Creature”) Miss Dracula and other vampires, James Bond, Superman and the common werewolf.

Not far behind Johnston in stardom was percussionist Adam Jeffrey, who had a field day physically dashing from one end of his array of instruments to another in order to keep up with them – very diverting.

As for the other musicians, they were kept busy playing not only their normal instruments but the “toys” the score demands.

Conducting the large ensemble was Roland Peelman, having the time of his life – indeed, he even played a vampire at the end of the performance.

The Gruber was as bizarre a choice as any Peelman has made for the festival, but what fun it was – and it gave the musicians some very challenging music to play.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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