Artist-run new music concert series Backstage Music kicked off its 2019 offerings last week with oboist Cathy Milliken, flautist Lamorna Nightingale and soprano Jane Sheldon, performing music by Berio, Stockhausen, and Australians Milliken and Fiona Hill (with an opening set by Lewis Mosley, Charlie Sundborn and Sam Weller). Last night’s Forbidden Things was the second of Backstage’s three 2019 concerts, which this year are in Annandale’s cosy gig venue The Newsagency – Sydney’s notorious performance space challenges resulting in Backstage Music having become something of a peripatetic series across its three-year history.

Biliana VoutchkovaBiliana Voutchkova. Ollie Miller

A devoted audience has followed it through a string of characterful venues, however, and on Thursday their evening began with Ensemble Offspring’s Hatched Academy Fellow, violist Henry Justo, on The Newsagency’s colourfully lit stage, in keeping with Backstage’s convention of pairing an early career artist with more established musicians. He began with Melbourne composer Matthew Laing’s Liebeslied – the antithesis of Fritz Kreisler’s popular violin miniatures, Justo explained. The work’s rich, sometimes strident overtones and gritty scraping effects (amplification highlighting every detail of the sound) making for an apposite pairing with French spectral composer Tristan Murail’s C’est un jardin secret, ma soeur, ma fiancée, une fontaine close, une source scellée… Another love song (Murail wrote it as a wedding present for friends, the title a quotation from the Song of Songs) the viola solo builds from a lilting, heartbeat figure into skirling melodic fragments and potent double stopping. Justo handled the technical demands with aplomb, and if there is some room to heighten the trance-like stillness in which works like this thrive, the explorations of texture and overtones foreshadowed the music to come in the concert’s second set. Justo closed his set on a lighter note, with the premiere of Angus Davison’s affectionate Garden Suite, a trio of short movements beginning with the quirky pizzicato bends of Suburban Turkey, through God in Green Overalls – a musical evocation of the “decomposition of organic matter in a worm farm” which saw Justo descend into the rich, earthy timbres of the viola’s low register – and the bright energy of The Wilds.

Berlin-based violinist Biliana Voutchkova – an innovative composer, performer and improviser – was the star of the second half, joined on stage by double bass player Clayton Thomas (founder of the NOW now festival), with Ensemble Offspring’s Claire Edwardes on percussion and Jason Noble on clarinet for Peter Ablinger’s Ohne Titel 1 – 10. A series of sparse, moody miniatures, skittering violin, spots of clarinet, and splashes of glockenspiel (sometimes bowed, sometimes struck) mingling over a bed of silence.

Alone on stage, Voutchkova’s rendition of Rebecca Saunder’s beautifully textural Hauch – commissioned for the 2018 International Joseph Joachim Violin Competition – saw her dispatch quiet, coarse timbres, siren-like slides and singing vibrato that stretched out into wide, wild waves. It was a masterclass in focus and control, derailed regrettably by a technical issue with her tablet that forced a restart. Nonetheless a fascinating work given a detailed, committed performance.

Noble joined Voutchkova for Claude Vivier’s Piece for Violin and Clarinet, a work written not for a competition, but as a kind of creative overflow resulting from a set of pieces commissioned by the Tremplin International Competition in Canada in 1976. The music grows out of drone-like sustains, the two instruments spiralling out and coming together in moments of dancing duet, gentle consonance and violent utterances.

The evening culminated in an improvised set that saw Voutchkova, solo at first, command an incredible variety of sounds through susurrus bowing, frenzied rhythmic attacks and murmuring tones – augmented by Voutchkova’s own sibilant vocals – before Thomas added percussive effects produced from his prone bass, his ministrations involving several bows and objects inserted between strings. The rumble and howl of Noble’s bass clarinet joined, along with the metallic sheen of Edwardes’ bowed cymbal and glittering glockenspiel. The players fed off each other to produce a remarkably cohesive performance, ultimately fading out into the soft static hiss of the violin, but it was Voutchkova’s performance that really captivated. She drew masterfully from a palette that spanned creaking strings to screaming vocals, her harmonics conjuring bagpipes, and – with inserted wooden preparations – magical John Cage-like gamelan evocations.

Backstage Music’s next concert will see William Barton, Veronique Serrett and Niki Johnson perform at The Newsagency on October 31


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