March 15, 2016

By Murray Black, 15 MAR 2016

Presenting contemporary classical music is a continuing challenge for symphony orchestras. The fear of upsetting listeners and not making sales targets can lead to neglect or tokenism.

SSO chief conductor David Robertson is a noted champion of contemporary music. One of his responses to this challenge was to select Australian composer Brett Dean as an artist in residence and have him program concerts in a non-traditional venue.

From the evidence of the first instalment in the SSO at Carriageworks series, Robertson has hit on a winner. The sellout crowd was demographically ­diverse and cross-generational. Carriageworks’ concreted, post-industrial surrounds proved an ideal setting for this stimulating selection of music.

According to Robertson, young Australian composer Lisa Illean was identified by Dean as one to watch. After listening to her new SSO commission, Land’s End, I can hear why.

Inspired by the delicate seascape paintings of Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins, Illean has constructed a similarly subtle soundscape in Land’s End. A series of wispy instrumental tendrils gradually unfolded and evolved, creating a compelling exercise in stillness and quietude that benefited from the SSO’s well-­sustained pianissimo playing.

The concert-opening Derive 1 (1984) by Pierre Boulez has been accurately described as a study in trills. Its textures and lines ceaselessly shift, merge, climb and plunge, yet never settle. The ­ensemble’s polished, well-­balanced account realised its mysterious character and sophis­ticated veneer.

Unlike Derive 1, there was an underlying sense of rhythmical drive and linear momentum in Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony (2000). In contrast to the pastoral musical idylls of previous centuries, Dean’s vision is a bleak, dystopian one of nature despoiled. Snatches of recorded birdsongs were melded into the orches­tral textures. Poignant lyrical shards were ultimately drowned out by a ferocious fortissimo tutti climax that then splintered into silence. The controlled intensity of Robertson and the SSO’s alert, tight-knit account evoked a strongly visceral ­response.

French composer Gerard Gri­sey’s Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold (1998), scored for ­soprano and chamber orchestra-sized ensemble, was different again. Long slow passages floated along untethered before the music suddenly sped up, drove forward, exploded with forceful power, then subsided. Clashing dissonances, fragmentary hints of melody and intriguing textures were interwoven into a unique musical tapestry that sounded both ritualistically primeval and utterly contemporary.

Soprano Jessica Aszodi was an outstanding soloist, remaining ­focused and clear-voiced in both staccato yelps and softer, more smoothly phrased snatches. The SSO’s instrumental ensemble captured Grisey’s distinctively ­intricate and complex creation with precision and insight.

Sydney Symphony. Carriageworks, Sydney. March 13.