Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Recital Centre
Metropolis New Music Festival
Melbourne Recital Centre, May 2-4

You won’t find a lot of new music on the bill of the MSO, with only a handful of works written since the turn of the millennium included in its main 2019 season.

For many orchestras, quietly smuggling new work onto programs alongside more popular repertoire is a tried-and-true strategy; the musical equivalent of eating your vegetables before getting your dessert. The MSO, however, takes a different tack.

Its annual Metropolis New Music Festival is a dedicated platform for celebrating modern aesthetics, while keeping those concertgoers for whom contemporary music is more purgatory than a pleasure at a safe distance.

This year, to mark his 80th birthday, the music of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen was the festival’s common denominator. While he may be a relatively obscure presence in Australian halls, Andriessen is an ideal choice for Metropolis.

A stylistic shapeshifter, his prolific canon is peppered with explorations of almost every major compositional trend of the modern era. Hopscotching from strict serialism to pastiche to graphic notation, and most notably, jazz-inflected minimalism, a retrospective of his work becomes a de facto survey of a century of creative innovation.

This mercurial identity was most vividly captured by Dutch pianist and close Andriessen collaborator Ralph van Raat. In a uniquely intimate recital, van Raat revealed a life’s work in just seven pieces, beginning with Andriessen’s unpublished Opus 1, written when he was just 16, through to a work so recent this performance was only its second public outing.

The experience felt like an immense privilege, not only because it offered a chance to hear the rarest works of this composer’s oeuvre, but also because of the deeply personal lens van Raat applied to their interpretation.

While it may not be its usual fare, MSO handles the demands of contemporary repertoire magnificently. Under the baton of American-born, Britain-based conductor Clark Rundell, the world premiere of Barry Conyngham’s One Small Step… – a richly textured sound world inspired by the 1969 moon landings, pitting valorous fanfares against the insistent, pulsing menace of the cosmic abyss – was a particular highlight of the opening evening.

It’s a work, like many in this festival, that deserves future hearings, and yet, opportunities for this are too few in Melbourne. With the MSO’s responsibility to contemporary work all but ghettoised to one annual event, albeit an extremely well-curated one, I can’t help but wish that Metropolis’ relationship to the main season was a case of "as well as" rather than "instead of".

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