For their second Metropolis concert, the MSO teamed up with The Song Company to take us from sweeping urban vistas right down into the streets of renaissance Paris and London. Emerging from this program was a double-sided view of the city as the source and solution to specifically urban problems. But first Australia’s new music dream team The Letter String Quartet treated the audience milling around the MRC foyer to excerpts from Wally Gunn’s moody work Blood. Perched in a window opening out onto the city night, the foyer concert introduced a welcome buzz to the cultural bunker that is Southbank. If TLSQ’s stylistic range—from artpop ballads to arch contemporary string writing—is anything to go by, then we can expect interesting things from the quartet’s concert on 26 November including new works created in collaboration with Bree Van Reyk, Ned Collette, Yana Alana, Zoë Barry Jed Palmer, and Mick Harvey.
With the MSO ranged expectantly on stage, The Song Company burst into Clément Janequin’s sixteenth-century setting of Parisian street cries. Singing from the gallery high above the audience, the cries of Paris rang out with an eerie clarity, like ghosts haunting the MRC. This haunting effect was even stronger in Orlando Gibbons’ The Cryes of London as the ensemble hummed a viol consort accompaniment. Weaving street cries into polyphonic music was a popular renaissance trope suggesting an awareness of the correlation between the multiple independent lines of polyphonic music and renaissance rationality and individualism. The cries are also a snapshot of the unique problems of urban life, including how to feed such a large concentration of people and how to control the rats and mice that accompany people wherever they go. Luciano Berio updated the trope with atonal polyphony in his The Cries of London in 1974. The Song Company’s lucid and nuanced performance of this modern masterpiece was by far the highlight of the evening.
The composer Michael Kurth also takes the streets as his inspiration in Everything Lasts Forever, which includes three pieces inspired by Atlanta street art. The cartoon feet of the street artist Toes are represented by swaggering slap bass. The pathos of a bird singing on a boarded-up door is conjured in a sadly lyrical movement. A loping movement in an additive meter presents an ironic commentary on the message “We Have All the Time in the World.”
The program contrasted the human interest of Janequin, Gibbons, Kurth, and Berio with pieces depicting cityscapes by Aaron Copland and Jennifer Higdon. These cityscape pieces present another side of the modern city: the city as a symbol of free market capitalism. The twentieth century is perhaps the first time in history where you have a piece like Jennifer Higdon’s City Scape where, in the composer’s words, “steel structures present an image of boldness, strength and growth, teeming with commerce and the people who work and live there.” Higdon wrote these words in 2002 and may think differently now. The global financial crisis of 2008 revealed that these steel skyscrapers were in fact images of selfishness and fragile growth, teeming with hedge funds undermining the world economy. The piece’s third movement is another hymn to a road, a “representation of all those roadways and main arteries that flow through cities.” As I pointed out in my review of the first MSO Metropolis concert, this climate change music is already sounding dated, more a relic of the twentieth century than a music of our time. It’s a pity, because Higdon’s piece really is a virtuosic kaleidoscope of orchestral gestures depicting, as she writes, “the diversity in city streets.” But to contemporary listeners faced with climate change and fragile global economies, the teeming, unregulated economy of the city sounds more like a problem rather than a status quo to be celebrated.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, The Song Company Conducted by Robert Spano and Antony Pitts