Monthly Archives: May 2012

bryce dessner, nico muhly & sufjan stevens at the opera house 28.05.2012

Originally billed as a collaboration between three musicians but with no further information until fairly close to the performance itself, this classical pop concert was probably what most who turned up tonight at the Sydney Opera House would have expected. This is coming from three musicians that would most likely be near the top of a compiled list of pop musicians with classical music composition skills, fairly different from four minute structured verse-chorus-verse-type songs.  (Although we are speaking of Sufjan Stevens here, so perhaps this is an exception).

As a huge fan of Sufjan Stevens and The National’s entire back catalogue, as well as many of the projects that Nico Muhly has been involved with (Antony and the Johnsons, Phillip Glass, Jonsi, Grizzly Bear), I was already predisposed to enjoy this mash-up of musical talent. The first part, a recital by the Orava String Quartet of Sydney, who were very young and visibly nervous (it was probably one of their first performances for an audience the size of the Opera House), unfortunately was not always coherent. Diacritical Marks, by Nico Muhly, clearly alluded a certain contemporary music pioneer, Steve Reich, in its variations on a theme, and rhythms, building and exploring the range and depths of sound. Needless to say, the dynamics were well emphasised by the string quartet, who were clearly on top of their game, at points the force of their playing severing the bow horsehairs mid-song. Sufjan Stevens’ part was an arrangement of three songs off Run Rabbit Run, which proved to be slightly more structured as a conventional pop piece by Sufjan Stevens’ standards. This was then followed by Bryce Dessner’s Aheym which was a more rough composition, and as described by Dessner, “metal arranged for string quartet”.

Following a short interval, the three musicians were ready to play Planetarium, with a backing ensemble comprised of 7 trombonists, the Orava String Quartet, as well as a drummer. This resembled, much more closely, what a pop collaboration between the three would sound like. With Bryce on his guitar, Nico at the keys, and Sufjan providing vocals, the audience was transported on a journey through space. A massive orb hanging from the centre of the stage had moving images projected into it, emulating the planets from the songs. Nico Muhly,  was the most talkative on stage, at a point, joking that the most controversial part of the show, was performing Pluto, which was demoted to a stellar body.

The use of the vocoder could have been considered slightly excessive, despite keeping with the ‘space’ theme. I think he may have gotten carried away with it, after using it in the recording Age of Adz. The evening was filled with music that had the depth of Sufjan’s career, from the quieter and fragile Venus, written about love, (obviously!) to seven minute epics, including the fierce Mars, Saturn, and Earth, with Nico Muhly’s faultless work on the keyboards and the celeste, also multi-tasking with conducting hand gestures in the corner of my eye providing a signal that the band was building up.  Dessner’s solo guitar work complimented the pieces well, bowing the guitar in Earth to great effect. As a whole, their performance came across as delicate and poignant in their interpretation of the planets. (even if some of them were no longer planets – as long as it makes for good music.)

PART 1 – STRING QUARTETS Performed by the Orava String Quartet

By Nico Muhly Diacritical Marks   (in eight movements)

By Sufjan Stevens Run Rabbit Run
i. Year of the Boar
ii. Year of the Horse
iii. Year of Our Lord

By Bryce Dessner:  Aheym

INTERVAL

PART 2 – PLANETARIUM Composed and performed by Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & Sufjan Stevens
“Planetarium”

Neptune (instrumental)
Jupiter
Venus
Uranus
Mars
The Sun
Pluto
The Moon
Saturn
Earth
Mercury

Encore:
Neptune

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my brightest diamond @ sydney opera house 27.05.2012

Following her success with Australian audiences at the 2010 edition of Vivid, Shara Worden took to the stage with her long-time drummer, backed by what was billed as a string ensemble, but in fact, was a mini-orchestra, with woodwind and the all-important brass trumpets, bringing to life, her latest album All Things Will Unwind. 

Dressed in a costume consistent with the theme of the album, and slightly reminiscent of a children’s tv show presenter (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course), complete with coloured wool balls (see below), she emerged with a large bunch of orange helium filled balloons, breaking into the opening song off her latest We Added It Up. The ensemble did a great job backing Shara’s heavenly voice, especially the brass and woodwind. The heartfelt Escape Routes, Shara explained, was written the last time she was on tour was inspired by a conversation she had with Laurie Anderson. The assistance of certain props, including a bob-the-builder-esque hard hat (filled with ‘snow’), a porcelain mask which was used for the transformation to Be Brave, and numerous loose balloons helped sustain the audience’s imagination as she performed songs from her latest album. She was clearly enjoying herself, jiggling around in between songs, and playfully exchanging words with the musicians on stage. At a point, she even attempted an Australian accent, which was quite amusing because it was more than likely that no one in the audience would speak with such a twang. 

Everything Is In Line was definitely one of the highlights from the new album, which segued smoothly into Apples. Picking up her electric guitar, old favourites, Workhorse, Dragonfly and Inside a Boy were met with applause and recognition by the audience, as was the My Brightest Diamond version of Tainted Love. Following a short break, the night was concluded with an encore of  I Have Never Loved Someone, completing a short but sweet evening.

Setlist:

We Added It Up
Reaching Out to the Other Side
Escape Routes
Be Brave
She Does Not Brave the War
Everything Is in Line
Apples
High Low Middle
Workhorse
Dragonfly
Inside a Boy
Tainted Love

Encore:
I Have Never Loved Someone

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a celebration of steve reich at opera house 29.04.2012

Steve Reich’s brilliance was displayed in a three part extravaganza, in celebration of his work, proving as a reminder of how he is one of the most highly regarded contemporary musicians. Clapping Music was performed by none other than Steve Reich himself and a member of the Synergy Percussion. This was perfomed by one performer playing the rhythm pattern, and the other shifting the pattern by an eighth over time. Drumming, was organic in the sense that the primality of the beating of drums was used in highlighting what could’ve been the sound of raindrops making contact with the surface of leaf. The loudness varied in the pattern of a sine wave, fluctuating up and down, as the percussive sounds produced a rhythm. This was in contrast with the melodic variations for vibes strings pianos with the harmonic rhythms and repetitions creating almost a trance-inducing state to the listener.

Then came part two. Eighth Blackbird, the group consisting of a multi-wind-instrumentalist, violins, piano, and vibraphone, produced a mesmerising sound in Four Organs, reverberating across the Opera House. This was followed by a splendid solo performance by the wind-instrumentalist, who layered phrase upon phrase, alternating from the flute to the piccolo, and more impressively, played from memory. It was concluded rendition of Double Sextet that sent shivers down this listener’s spine. This piece was driven by the pianos and vibraphones, with Eighth Blackbird playing against a recording of themselves in their production of harmonies.

The evening was then completed with a performance of Music for 18 Musicians, consisting of 4 voices, a cello, violin, two clarinets, four pianos, xylophones, three marimbas, two xylophones and a vibraphone (unplugged), which steadily built up in sound over the entire venue. The harmonies and melodies interacted, almost as if in conversation, and were accentuated by the prominent sound of breath, creating pulses which were prominent throughout the entire evening. On conclusion of the hour-long piece, Steve Reich himself made a final appearance, graciously accepting the standing ovation, and greeting each musician on stage as the audience looked on in amazement at what they had just experienced.

PART 1: SYNERGY PERCUSSION 6.00pm – 7.00pm
1. Mallet Quartet – 14’
2. Drumming Part 1 – 14’
3. Variations for Vibes Strings Pianos – 25’ (Australian Premiere)

INTERVAL (20 mins)

PART 2: EIGHTH BLACKBIRD 7.20pm – 8.15pm
1. Four Organs – 20’
2. Vermont Counterpoint – 10’
3. Double Sextet – 22’

INTERVAL (20 mins)

PART 3: MUSIC FOR 18 MUSICIANS 8.40pm – 9.40pm
1. Music for 18 Musicians – 60’

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