Musica Viva Australia has just launched Sessions, a series of brief, one-off gigs in unusual places. The first featured violone and bass player Kirsty McCahon and percussionist Kerryn Joyce, performing in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens of NSW.
Plants and music. Two of my favourite things. And with a glass of wine thrown in (or, in my case, thrown over – apologies to the various people I splattered) what’s not to like? While not everything worked — there’s more than one reason why the Herbarium is a herbarium and not a regular concert venue — it was an auspicious beginning.
Challenging the traditional concert format also seems to be a favourite strategy for the mainstream music presenters. Early starts, late nights, short concerts, marathons, lights, cameras… We’ve seen music and image in the ACO’s thrilling Mountain, the SSO’s matey Playlist and Branden-backflippery, all in the name of art and audience development. And there’s ongoing play with interesting venues, ranging from Government House to Kings Cross carpark.
Sessions is a bit more artist focussed. Notwithstanding the intriguing venue and generous refreshments the real hook, for me, was hearing two musicians playing their favourites, and especially works which don’t get out much. Luciano Berio’s Psy (Forte barocco), a solo for double bass featuring ear-bending quarter tones, is unlikely to appear on a Classic 100 compilation, but it’s a work which seems deeply embedded in McCahon’s psyche. She plays it like she means it. She means it very well.
Likewise Dedication by Ian Cleworth (who is the artistic director of Taikoz and has introduced a generation of Australians to the wonders of Japanese drumming), specially arranged for this solo performance. Joyce’s electrifying performance clearly demonstrated how much it means it to her. Her own composition, Recollection, was a great opener, introducing us to the bass violine’s range of timbres, and Robert Davison’s Melody for Julia was a winning display of good humour and collegial virtuosity. The artists’ introductions and lively repartee only increased the sense of being witness to something a little bit special. Not all the repertoire hit the mark, but with such dedicated performers it was impossible not to get drawn in.
Other aspects of the new format might be fine-tuned: you don’t really need an interval when the program only lasts 60 minutes. You probably don’t even need another free drink, especially when access to the improvised bar is difficult. And while it’s great to be up close and personal, some instruments work better than others in an intimate setting, especially when they are either very loud or very soft. Finally, there’s the age-old problem of how to get people to leave the party when they’re having a good time. We were invited to stroll on out through moonlit gardens, which was persuasive, but not enough to make us want to cut short those fabulous post-concert conversations which are the icing on the cake of a good show.
After the performance McCahon mused a little on the role of the double bass, so often pushed to the side or the back of the hall. She’s determined to reclaim centre stage, and to introduce audiences to the deliciously complex range of sounds this awkward instrument has. This was a near ideal format for the start of her campaign.
Musica Viva has not announced the next Sessions but watch out, because rumour has it the next one is being planned for early August.