Knocking at the Hellgate

Brett Dean 6235 (Mark Coulsen) LOW RESThe TSO’s New Creations Festival wrapped up last night at Roy Thomson Hall with a concert featuring Brett Dean’s suite Knocking at the Hellgate, drawn from his 2004 opera Bliss.  But first came a piece by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.  Water is a tone poem (if one can still use that term) inspired by soome lines from Philip Larkin:

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Written for a chamber orchestra including two tanpuras and amplified piano, it’s an atmospheric piece mixing elements of minimalism and dissonance with extended techniques in the strings and note bending in an extremely competent way.  A fairly gentle introduction to what was to follow!

The meat of the short evening was the operatic suite with the composer on the podium and Russell Braun as vocal soloist.  I think I want to see Bliss.  It’s the story of a happy go lucky advertising executive, Harry Joy, who has a heart attack and dies in the first scene.  He descends to a Hell of TV game shows and vapid commercials before coming back to life.  determined to ruin his former business he embarks on an orgy of drugs, booze and sex before falling in love with a prostitute spiritual healer and retiring with her to the Queensland rainforest to keep bees.

The music is exciting and vibrant, mixing a conventional orchestra with lots of percussion, one of the cuter violinists in a boa as a game show hostess, tape samples and electric violin (brilliantly played by Jonathan Crow), to provide a wide range of effects from the “flat lining” of Joy’s death to the cacophonous TV Hell to the reflective final aria on bees, love, life and death.  The three arias included are varied in tone and mood and written sympathetically for the voice although, even with a soloist of Russell’s capability, there was some of the hall’s voice swallowing effect going on; at least where we were under the overhang at the back of the mezzanine.  Overall it’s pretty sophisticated music though with a very “in your face mate” Australianness.  I liked it a lot.

The concert and the festival wrapped up with the, seemingly, ubiquitous Skratch Bastid.  This time he was spinning and scratching (one day I’ll work out what that means) remixes of excerpts from the festival.  It was exuberant and fun and if I understood the world of turntables I would tell you more.  But I don’t.

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4 thoughts on “Knocking at the Hellgate

  1. Exactly my reaction. I kept thinking, I’d like to hear/see the whole opera. I also experienced the hall’s voice swallowing effect – at the front of the side mezzanine, although had no problems with Written on Skin from the same seat.

  2. Oh, and it was wonderful to see RTH hall full of many, many young people. It felt like a party! The policy of cheaper prices seems to be paying off at least in terms of attendance. Don’t know whats its doing for TSO bottom line. And don’t know what it will do for subscribers who pay a lot more up front for the same seats they could get far cheaper if they wait.

    • >>And don’t know what it will do for subscribers who pay a lot more up front for the same seats they could get far cheaper if they wait.

      I’ve played with a few models of that for the opera. If you reach the tipping point where people wait for the deals, realization, as opposed to utilization, goes to hell in a handbasket. I suspect the magic number is around 85% so I would think that the TSO is already at the point where a lot of people wait for deals but I’ve never dug deep into their financials.

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