Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Robert Blackwood Hall, April 19

South Korean composer Unsuk Chin is chief guest at this year’s Metropolis Festival and has provided most of the elements in each the programs that make up the MSO’s annual grapple with contemporary moves in various musical fields. Sadly, this well-intentioned exercise is losing its prominence in the orchestra’s calendar. What used to be the major Metropolis events have been reduced over the years from four to two only, and their locale has shifted from the Malthouse to Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, now to an overspacious Clayton venue. Still, because of the dearth of professional presentations of difficult modern work, we’ll take what we’re given, and gratefully – for as long as it lasts.

On this first Metropolis night, the full orchestra played two works: Chin’s Su,  which is a concerto for sheng (a large mouth organ), and Australian Ade Vincent’s Amy Lowell-inspired Hood Yourself in Stars. Both enjoyed their Australian premieres and made a mildly interesting study in contrasts. The concerto’s soloist, Wu Wei, inspired Chin to use non-European instruments and the sheng’s hefty reed timbre dominated much of the score, which is a sophisticated construct laced with fabrics both rich and tenuous from a well-stocked body of players.

Vincent’s three-movement work is strong on repeated chords, heavy timpani/percussion contributions, sonic excitement but with not much meat on its bones. The composer relishes his opportunity to indulge in lavish orchestration yet the experience is inescapably filmic, its grandiose sequences of driving pageantry suggesting the hobbits’ first sight of Gondor.

At either end of the night, the Australian String Quartet performed by themselves; fortuitously, the ensemble’s first violin is MSO concertmaster Dale Barltrop. The ASQ began with Ligeti’s homage to Bartok, the String Quartet No. 1 subtitled Metamorphoses nocturnes, which employs the elder composer’s material and compositional tics. An honest and sympathetic homage, the score is deftly constructed and instantly assimilable. Winding up the program, Chin’s  ParaMetaString  was written for the Kronos Quartet and is packed with enough acoustic paraphernalia – heavy amplification, a pre-recorded tape, tricky sound games – to demonstrate that extraordinary ensemble’s performance strengths, enthusiastically recreated by the ASQ.

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