The Schönberg Ensemble at the Melbourne International Arts Festival


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Friday’s concert by The Schönberg Ensemble was a surprising offering, showcasing the extraordinary technique, control and sense of adventure from this premier European group.

Under the baton of founding conductor Reinbert de Leeuw, The Schönberg Ensemble has played halls and festivals across the globe for over 30 years, branching out beyond their eponymous Arnold Schönberg to a broad repertoire of non-symphonic works.

Friday’s program at Hamer Hall featured Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan in Uma Só Divina Linha and Mysteries of the Macabre. Hannigan’s masterful and pure voice aligns superbly with the similar technical and aesthetic confidence of the Ensemble, and generated the highlight of the concert with the highly performative and mischievous Mysteries.

The evening opened with Australian composer Michael Smetanin’s Micrographia, a dense, structural and measured exploration along chromatic lines, with a remarkable twin solo performance from percussionists Ger de Zeuuw and Joey Marijs, jointly attacking their marimba bare handed in a blend of surgical precision and martial energy.

The Ensemble was then joined by Hannigan for the first of her two solos in Jan van de Putte’s Uma Só Divina Linha. Putte’s piece showcases the remarkable control and restraint of the Ensemble and Hannigan as it builds from silence, through hushed breathed tones, generating palpable anticipation which transforms Hannigan’s first, immaculately placed note into a cathartic and evocative moment. It is during this piece that the Ensemble and de Leeuw truly showcase their talent for imagery and performance, with a truly interactive partnership between soloist, conductor and Ensemble.

The second half of the evening further explored these strengths of the Ensemble, performing pieces by György Ligeti, a long time collaborator with the Ensemble. Although sharing a composer, these two pieces presented polar stylistic extremes. Kammerkonzert strode with a nervous and unsettled pace, with jittery strings and anxious woodwinds. The sound of the Ensemble can be described as cinematic in feel, with particularly vivid and bold dynamics and a sense of imagery not bound by traditional expectations of musical structure.

After the disciplined Kammerkonzert, the remarkable Hannigan appeared again, sneaking onto stage donned in a full-length leather coat and a dominatrix outfit (replete with ink-black wig) – a costume not easily imagined on an accomplished soprano, but pulled off with such attitude and performative ease. Hannigan strode around the stage, challenging the audience with physical presence and the sheer power and quality of her voice.

Mysteries of the Macabre’s score illustrated the scope of Hannigan’s skills dragging her from guttural lows through to piercing, clarion highs. The Ensemble similarly raced through the score with vigour and an adroit playfulness – the disjointed and energetic sound punctuated with orchestra vocalisations (a hallmark of the evening) and a crowd favourite moment of the normally sombre de Leeuw having the conductor’s score usurped by Hannigan, and de Leeuw later offering a deadpan comic exasperation.

The evening was a superb demonstration of The Schönberg Ensemble’s deft musical skill and bold and imaginative approach to performance. De Leeuw’s leadership of the Ensemble is marked by a ferocious attention to detail and precision, and a desire to explore the boundaries of contemporary musical expression. The Schönberg Ensemble’s program at Melbourne Festival is an exciting and edgy one, and Friday’s audience demonstrated their enthusiastic approval with ovation after ovation after ovation for these superb musicians.


Originally published at Arts Hub.

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