Music Review: Once Upon a Time at UKARIA


Looking at UKARIA’s website to see its gig offerings throughout the year is always an eye-opener, but it also brings a measure of regret: it’s simply not possible to access all of the artists from foreground that they manage to get out. This wonderful Adelaide Hills concert hall smothers everything else in terms of quality when it comes to local chamber music, and one would really have to go to the Melbourne Recital Center to find something similar – which is no coincidence, as UKARIA and the MRC have built close reciprocal ties.

UKARIA has something else up its sleeve that is truly special, and can only be compared to events in Europe like the Lockenhaus Festival in Austria. This is his three-day exploratory concert band called UKARIA 24, in which musicians of international profile are invited for a period of residency to try out their most inventive ideas, unrestricted by the usual boundaries of design. of concerts.

Fantastic things have come out of it. I remember cellist Nicolas Altstaedt playing Bach’s cello suites as he sat barefoot against the large picture windows with a pair of dancers from the Australian Dance Theater swirling gracefully in front of him. In the same event, an artist painted watercolors on a row of eight easels to the sound of Vilde Frang’s violin, with paint dripping everywhere. It was in 2018; other UKARIA 24 commissioners over the years include James Crabb, Diana Doherty and Umberto Clerici in 2021.

This year his master of invention was the British violist Lawrence Power. A prominent and much admired representative of his instrument, he was here for this 2018 event, participating in a trio by Sándor Veress. Wonderful, he was, at the same super-league level as Altstaedt.

However, there are even more irritating and impatiently inventive instincts in Power. In the first of his five UKARIA 24 concerts, titled Once upon a time, the invention worked so freely that you literally felt in the dark at times as to what was going on. But it all culminated wonderfully at the end, in an immensely powerful affirmation of the true values ​​of chamber music.

Midway through Taneyev’s mighty Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op.30, a connection suddenly occurred (speaking for myself) that brought the program together and fully revealed the thought within. It was the link between this Russian chamber music epic – the musical equivalent of a Tolstoy novel – and the first composer on the programme, Henry Purcell. Maybe a few more words of elucidation were needed at first.

Nevertheless, the concert began in an unusual and interesting way with the sounds of a choppy bassline emanating from cellist Torleif Thedéen, who was stationed in one of the upper tiers of the floor. Quickly, he was joined by strumming chords from Power’s viola as he came up from the stage – all of this was happening with the lights off. The piece was Purcell’s “Curtain Tune on a Ground” from his mask Timon of Athensall wonderfully spontaneous.

Alessio Bax, Torleif Thedéen, Lawrence Power and Vilde Frang perform ‘Story’ by lounge music, by John Cage. Photo: Ben Nicholls

Then the first of the three filmed performances was projected on screen, the speakers on each side. These are pieces from Thomas Adès’ 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel, for viola and piano. Power was present in these films himself, performing with the composer at the piano in a private house in north London. Curiously, this allowed the composer to be virtually present at the Mount Barker Summit; it was also appropriate, given that UKARIA had co-commissioned these works in 2018 but was unable to present them so far.

One reservation, however: as creative as this idea of ​​mixing recording and live performance was, a live performance of these three Lullabies for viola and piano would have been perfectly possible and in fact more preferable acoustically, for Bösendorfer’s own grand UKARIA sat with folded arms and on the program of this concert appeared the very good pianist Alessio Bax.

Be that as it may, these Adès pieces were pleasant and languorous to hear – indeed, nothing to do with the violent horror of his opera from which they emerged – and when the curtains slowly parted to reveal the setting of UKARIA bush at dusk, the effect was magical.

The assortment of tracks made this first half a bit disconnected, but there was no doubting the high caliber of Power and his musicians. Vilde Frang, back in this UKARIA 24, interpreted Tarréga Recuerdos of the Alhambra, originally a guitar piece, with the most artful and neat string crossovers imaginable. Thedéen played Pablo Casals Song of the birds, a simple but melodically evocative little piece, very nicely; and they all came together to great effect to tell John Cage’s lounge musica fun rhythmic piece based on Gertrude Stein’s whimsical poem The world is round.

by Luciano Berio Natural for viola, percussion and recorded voice was the main focus. Here, Power produced the most beautiful playing of the concert so far: pure in tone, thoughtful and continually reaching new expressive planes. Aided by Amanda Grigg’s sensible additions of gong, marimba and other percussion instruments, it had the voice of a Sicilian folk singer, recorded by the composer in Palermo, playing over the speakers. It sounded like a musical travelogue – a trip to a distant world.

Extremely lively treatment of another “curtain tune”, this time by Matthew Locke Storm, sets the tone for the second half. Dynamic and full of tone, the group – with Sophie Rowell on second violin – has now turned to the gigantic Piano Quintet in G minor, Op.30, by Sergei Taneyev. Best known as one of Tchaikovsky’s composition students, he produced music that bears no resemblance to his teacher except for its generalized Russian flavor: tightly structured and focused on traditional values ​​of form. and counterpoint, it includes a constantly repeated descending bass line in its extraordinary Largo third. movement.

This movement seems deliberately borrowed from Purcell, in works such as “Rejoice in the Lord Always”, and it may well be. Whatever its provenance, the result is quite bizarre – centuries out of step – but artistically satisfying all the same.

And that performance was absolutely phenomenal. The five musicians, clearly excited not only about the work itself, but also about this opportunity to play together, were dazzlingly precise and passionate. It was really like listening to a Deutsche Grammophon recording but live. We particularly admired Power’s lightning-fast reflexes to any change in mood, and the way he energetically fed his colleagues. The powerful cello of Thedéen and the immaculate violin of Frang and Rowell were also a joy; and what a terrific pianist Bax is too – so awesome.

The most rewarding thing about UKARIA 24 is how it gives the listener a new and different insight into the concert experience. Here we have seen the different facets of an exceptional musician and his wonderful colleagues, perhaps in a way one never can in a ‘pure’ performance. The concept is exciting.

Graham Strahle attended day one of the three-day UKARIA 24 programme, organized by Lawrence Power, at the UKARIA Cultural Center at Mount Barker Summit.

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