Review by Cynthia Ning
We are kicking off the 2023 season with the Sydney Festival at the iconic Opera House with a musical performance by Dutch ensemble, Asko|Schönberg in Concert with Ensemble Offspring – both talented groups of performers presenting new music as you haven’t heard or seen before.
The program offered 7 original pieces beginning with two duets and all eyes were on Blair Harris (cellist) as he transcended into another place with his cello. The two songs showed duality from deep heavy tones to whimsical light percussions which was a great introduction to their contemporary sound. The set design was simple with the larger instruments placed on wheels for easy manoeuvring around the stage with microphones placed in front to amplify sound and iPad touch screens in place of sheet music for most of the musicians. The integration of technology in the intimate space felt as if we were in a professional recording studio waiting in anticipation of what was coming next.
Claire Edwardes (Artistic Director, percussion) presented an acknowledgment of the ensemble's history and a heartfelt tribute to their teacher Louis Andriessen (Composer), who encouraged individuality from his students and pioneered the new wave of contemporary music today.
Each ensemble member was dressed mostly in black with a pop of colour that showcased their personality and represented the freeness in their music by not adhering to traditional uniformed attire. For the pieces I appreciated that the percussions didn’t completely overtake or swallow the performance and each instrument had its own moments to shine with small solos. It was awe inspiring to witness near-flawless synchronised playing by these passionate musicians with great respect for their craft. They took us through an incredible journey as I visualised myself flying through the clouds and then crashing into the waves, tossing between the sweetest dreams to the darkest nightmares.
My little sister Carmen recognised Alex Raineri (Pianist) in an episode from the wildly popular YouTube channel TwoSetViolin which features classical music and two modern violinists as they explore the history and new generation of modern musicians. It was encouraging to see a diverse range of audience members who showed great interest in this niche genre, speaking in high praise of the contemporary compositions and creativity from each ensemble during the intermission.
The second act presented a simple blue background in contrast to the red background in the first act and brought a new burst of energy, especially in Zilver by Louis Andriessen. There was pure joy and liveliness with some personal flare during fast-paced and dramatic highs as we clung to our seats waiting to come tumbling back into reality. Carmen felt that it was ‘pretty cool’ and indeed it is, this music is exciting.
Asko|Schönberg showed fun character in having each member play a small metal wobble warbler making the audience giggle at the silliness, then all jaws dropped when Joseph Puglia (Violinist) performed his solo as he poured his soul into his violin leading the ensemble to greater heights that he almost leapt up off the stage! He showed us extended techniques by plucking the violin with a pick and playing it like a ukulele. It was eye-popping to see in person and mind-boggling to know how many ways one would play the violin with an audible wow coming from me.
For the final piece, Joseph, now the audience darling was comedically adjusting his seat as we waited for him to get comfortable before a clicker went off for all to hear … Take 2. After about a minute into the song, there was a sudden halt as Clark Rundell (Conductor) mentioned his headphone clicker stopped working and requested to the sound box to start again. He amused the audience with a similar funny tale about Steve Reich stopping the show as he believed the film was slightly out of focus. Clark needing no microphone to speak mentioned that they will continue with, ‘No hesitation, without deviation and a lot of levitation … Take 3’. The audience was very understanding and laughed along, keeping the mood relaxed and light. The final piece was truly out of this world and was worth the wait to hear it in its entirety.
The music would be well suited to still animation, and modern ballet performances and is reminiscent of music for films such as Studio Ghibli due to the quirky character and nature of the sound evoking clear and specific emotion and movement. I hope to see further work from both ensembles and will be adding them to my playlist.
It was an absolute treat to see world-class musicians come together on stage in Sydney and I know that this will be the first of many more concerts to come. Asko|Schönberg and Ensemble Offspring proved that words are not always necessary to convey a story. I highly recommend young musicians come to see a show and inspire them to stretch beyond the classical repertoire and create their own unique contemporary pieces.
For anyone looking to explore an immersive musical experience with an appreciation for contemporary experimentation fused with traditional instruments then this is a must for you.