★★★★☆ An epic night out as new-music trailblazers pull out all the stops.

Deakin Edge, Federation Square
August 11, 2015

Plexus is a force to be reckoned with. While most ensembles take years to establish, Plexus has charged into Australia’s new music scene with a blazing passion, so far commissioning 70 new works since the group’s launch in 2014. The ensemble is a meeting of powerful musical forces: Monica Curro (violin) and Philip Arkinstall (clarinet) are long-time MSO favourites, and Stefan Cassomenos is an internationally regarded recitalist and soloist.

As a testament to the group’s collaborative vision, Tuesday night’s concert saw Plexus team up with a host of fine musicians in delivering a truly epic program. Expanding beyond the purely instrumental, the ensemble was joined by vocalists Deborah Cheetham (soprano), Liane Keegan (contralto) and Daniel Carison (bass-baritone), plus the Royal Melbourne Philhamonic Choir conducted by Andrew Wailes. The core group too was beefed up by guest musos (and fellow MSO members) cellist Michelle Wood and double bassist Damien Eckersley, filling out the ensemble’s low register and providing some much needed support in the meaty works on the program.

To open the concert, the five instrumentalists and Liane Keegan gave the world premiere of Argentinian Italian composer José Hernán Cibils’s Three Songs for the Lord. Keegan’s delivery was superb, marrying a rich, plum timbre and excellent diction. Plexus were also in excellent form, maintaining a perfect ensemble balance and conveying clear melodic line. With alternating episodes of parlour kitsch and almost Bachian counterpoint, the work was an effective showcase of the group’s technical prowess.

Plexus was then joined by Deborah Cheetham AO, who performed Cassomenos’s own arrangement of the stunning Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. Many would deem these monuments in the orchestral literature untouchable as far as re-orchestration goes. But in spite of the risk, Cassomenos’s arrangements came off a happy triumph, capturing all the profundity of Strauss’s songs while exposing the delicate intricacy of his melodic invention. Cheetham’s sound was nuanced and sweet, delivering a more sensitive interpretation given the reduced instrumental forces, though still summoning a glorious and full, resonant voice for the work’s dramatic highpoints. Im Abendrot was as perfect and transfixing as it should be.

The final work saw a distinct increase in scale and energy, from the intimacy of chamber music to the might of choral drama. Cassomenos again provided the music: this time his own composition, Requiem for the End of Time. With no apparent link to Messiaen’s similarly titled quartet aside from the instrumentation, Cassomenos’s exploration of the Christian commemorative service for the dead was, like many requiem settings before it, notably epic. With large choir, soloists and the quintet, Cassomenos’s unique exploration of the requiem mass was jubilant and arresting.

The work is a “no holds barred” affair: its brazen narrative veers between the demonic and the revelatory, juxtaposing the Latin mass ordinary with passages from the Book of Revelations. A genre-hopping musical score engages epic film music tropes, contemporary classical, jazz, pop and at times what sounds like a rave. Think “requiem rock opera”, to borrow the words of an excited audience member, post-concert. Cassomenos has thrown everything into this work, creating a rapturous, hour-long musical orgy that disintegrates any line between what’s sacred and profane (both musically and religiously speaking).

Both Cheetham and Keegan returned as soloists, alongside emerging talent Daniel Carison, who performed the voice of John from the Book of Revelations. Carison’s sturdy bass-baritone was a strong presence throughout, exploring the drama and colour of the text with a fine maturity. The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir was similarly strong as a chorus of (frequently diabolical) angels, managing the complicated and motoric rhythmic organisation of the work with ironclad confidence. Andrew Wailes admirably conducted the non-stop extravaganza through its various contrasting states of frenzy and calm.

At the centre of it all was Plexus, for whom the night was a real triumph. The requiem brought the audience to its feet in appreciation not just of the composer’s incredible efforts, but also the fantastic performances of all involved. With this visionary and eclectic concert, Plexus have continued to make their bold musical mark on Australia’s performing arts scene.

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