Programming and musicianship continued their beautiful marriage at UKARIA 24, which tonight ranged from the rhythms of Piazzolla-influenced Tango Nuevo to the textures of Piazzolla-influenced Golijov.

James Crabb’s arrangements continued to feature delightfully throughout the weekend, such as his version of Argentinean violinist Antonio Agri’s Desde Adentro for strings, violin, piano and classical accordion. This work also has a connection to the composer who is really at the conceptual heart of the weekend: Ástor Piazzolla, who was a friend and collaborator of Agri.

The Goldner Quartet’s Dimity Hall opened the work with a rhapsodic violin solo, peaking on a high note which Crabb then took over on accordion; the blending was so perfect that it was hard to tell where the violin ended and the accordion began. The two duetted passionately, buoyed up on the romantic string swells of the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Momentum Ensemble.

MC Iain Grandage introduced the next work, explaining the Finnish connections to tango and to drinking – and Fantango by Jukka Tiensuu was evidently written to sound like music as heard by the man who’s had a few too many. It was originally written for a harpsichord of two manuals – with the second manual a quarter-tone out of pitch with the first – but it appeared here in a version for strings, woodwind and accordion. The microtonal offset was shared between these instruments, giving everything a blurred, surreal edge. Deranged, stumbling tango rhythms were interspersed with outraged squeals from the accordion, sounding like it’d been sat on. Slow, sticky microtonal glissandi gave the impression that the cassette tape of time had been stretched thin and consciousness and hearing had telescoped to a tiny window. Perhaps the drunkard was about to faint?

It was a hilarious performance and the mood of musicians and audience alike simmered with palpable glee. For the first time across the event, we heard Israeli conductor Ariel Zuckermann in his original manifestation as a flautist, his meaty, lucid sound distinguishable even in the dissonant haze.

More Piazzolla followed. His double concerto for guitar and bandoneón – the Argentinian folk accordion – was led by Crabb and Adelaide guitarist Aleksandr Tsiboulski. In his mysterious opening solo, Tsiboulski explored both soft and bold sounds, striking the sides and body of his instrument, before a meditative duet with the accordion. As the tango rhythms got underway, the strings swayed in with ardent harmonies. Both Crabb and Tsiboulski were evidently listening carefully to each other in a bid for blending as well as conversation, but often still sounded like two individual soloists rather than two halves of a whole. By the final movement, however, this had become an active, tight togetherness, so that there was a core of guitar to the husky accordion sound.

But the highlight of the evening was the concluding performance of a monolithic 21st-century masterpiece: Osvaldo Golijov’s song cycle Ayre, a fantastically varied setting of Mediterranean folk songs old and new. It explored the ternion of cultures – Jewish, Arab and Christian – which intersected in medieval Spain before the Jews and the Moors were driven out, with texts in Sephardic, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. Golijov’s reimagining of their music blended traditional melodies with modern works and the spoken with the sung word in an electronics-infused soundscape.

Soprano Emma Pearson excelled in exploring the character of each song, committing herself to every new emotion without reservation. Sorrow, lust and cruelty all collided in the opening piece, with its twisting vocal lines on an Arabic-inspired scale, and Pearson found an impassioned, almost visceral sound to express them. And then in Una Madre Comió Asado, a lullaby with a horrific story, she sang simply and purely, without vocal bells and whistles – lingering tenderly over just a few pitches and letting the tragic words speak for themselves. Above the rhythmic delirium of Terras Serradas a Muru, Pearson’s sound became an astringent, gnawing shout, interspersed with vocal screams which even the musicians joined in. And later, as she spoke a poem of loss into silence, her voice was full of suppressed tears, wonder and fear.

Instrumental highlights were many, including Lloyd Van’t Hoff’s clarinet solos, his buttery klezmer tone arcing and wailing; double bassist Rohan Dasika’s starry harmonics in Una Madre; and Tsiboulski’s sparkling instrumental on the tiny guitar-like ronroco. Crabb’s electronically enhanced accordion gave the impression of a psychedelic organ, or a twisted siren, before dubstep bass under the direction of Jim Atkins kicked off a dance party on stage! Momentum Ensemble’s Charlotte Fetherston brought the final movement to its consummation, as a bazaar of vocalises receded to leave her viola solo twisting over an Eastern scale and softening into silence.

This was a performance worth every minute of the standing ovation it received. Emma Pearson’s hairpin-bend shifts of colour and character hit the high point of the evening, and after a 45-minute marathon of volatile emotion, wide-ranging techniques and even dancing, her energy and excitement still appeared untarnished. Colourful, adventurous and skilfully delivered, the UKARIA 24 experience continues to meet the standards set in its previous concerts.


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