This concert in the Adelaide Festival was not programmed as such, but comprised excerpts from a longer series of concerts performed in a more remote part of Adelaide. It included three more or less contemporary Australian musical works and a poem before the Schoenberg. The whole series, and this digest, was curated by Kim Williams, and introduced by him at some length. While much of the information he provided was of substantial interest, observations such as Richard Meale’s Lumen is “rarely if ever played” were not necessarily an inducement to the average punter.

Jessica Aszodi
© Adelaide Festival

This was the opening work, composed in 1998, eleven years before the composer’s death, for the centenary of the Adelaide Conservatorium. A somewhat Debussian work, it was composed for clarinet (Jason Noble), violin (James Wannan), cello, (Blair Harris), percussion (Claire Edwardes) and piano (Jack Symonds), but above all, flute, beautifully played by Geoffrey Collins. Like many such works, a delicate soundscape proceeds with increasing complexity, interweaving flute and clarinet with the other instruments.

This was followed by a reading of a poem by iconic (= we all had to read her stuff at school) Australian author Judith Wright (1915-2000), Age to Youth,  read by Ross Edwards. I don’t know if poetic insertions are common in Adelaide chamber music concerts, but it was perhaps to do with the next work, a composition by Edwards, Bright Birds and Sorrows, originally premiered in 2015 and, apparently, oft revised since.  Originally in nine parts, it has been reduced to four for this occasion at least. Edwards is known for his deep interest in Australian ecology and often features bird call or, as here, less recognisably distinct bird-like sounds. It is described as a work for soprano saxophone and [traditional] string quartet, with the addition of clapsticks, wielded by second violin Wilma Smith. The saxophone (Michael Duke) provided a pure sound weaving above the other players (the Flinders quartet). A kind of loose warbling with rhythmic interventions included a gentle “Lullaby” section followed by a “Lament for the sacred earth” featuring wounded animal sounds from the clarinet. The final movement was quite rollicking and spiky, much enjoyed by all.

Another work from 2015 followed, Piano Quintet “The Offering” by Tashkent-born Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, featuring the Flinders Quartet again and pianist Jacob Abela. It opens with a rolling piano accompanied by short-breathed movements on the strings, sounding bright but with an undertone of melancholy which persists throughout. It contains many different components, from a sonorous organ-like passage to syncopated third movement moving into jazz stylings and a false finish, with two further movements, a gentle shimmering effect with high notes fading away into nothing, and finally a rather Dvořákian sounding melodic introduction leading to a frenzied but controlled finale culminating in piano and pizzicato and a final resounding chord. As with Edwards, the composer was in the house and took a warmly applauded bow.

After the interval, soprano and Sprechstimme-ist Jessica Aszodi took the stage along with pianist and conductor Symonds, Collins (flute), Noble (clarinet), Wannan (violin), and Harris (cello), for a rare Australian performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912). But not that rare: as well as one conducted by Meale in 1959, I could easily find eight performances since then in Sydney, Melbourne and indeed the Adelaide Town Hall itself (1974) and another one featuring Aszodi in Adelaide in 2018. This helps to explain her assured, book-free delivery of the piece, with its mix of soprano vocalising and more speech-like expression, taking off from a given note to glide free-form into the stratosphere of, well, sex and madness. Even today the symbolist poetry of Albert Giraud is a challenge to the mind and the senses. Sung in German with well-translated English surtitles, Aszodi’s diction was crystal clear, and her assumption of the wildly varying emotional modes totally compelling. The subtle interplay of voice and musicians was just about perfect, and the whole thing totally engaging. For most, anyway. Leaving the theatre after the performance I heard a loud male voice complaining about “that German screaming”, which suggests that, over a hundred years on, Schoenberg still purveys the shock of the new more tellingly than contemporary works.