Venue: Concert Hall, QPAC, July 18
The size of the house suggested that Brisbane audiences may have been daunted by the idea of Heiner Goebbels' "sonic boom" of a piece, Surrogate Cities, which opened the Brisbane leg of the Queensland Biennial music festival on Friday.
It will be a opportunity badly missed if similarly adventurous and entertaining Biennial events attract only average crowds.
True, Surrogate Cities is big, perplexing, even overwhelming. Just how do you respond to 90 minutes of great slabs of sound, interspersed with episodes such as a Burt Bacharach -like torch song that culminates in the phrase: "his tongue shall be torn from his mouth"?
It's not the sort of work the Queensland Orchestra usually tackles and it was hard to tell if the players had entered into the spirit of the thing. The front desks of the basses and the ever-reliable percussion gave it plenty but despite the urgings of conductor Andrea Molin, others seemed to be in "efficient but dour" mode. However, relieved smiles at the end suggested that perhaps the dourness had actually been fierce concentration.,
Surrogate Cities draws on large forces, but structure and texture were remarkably clear. Goebbels avoids the trap of piling complex rhythms and colours on atop the other until the whole becomes a sonic blur and any structural complexity purely academic.
Amid driving rhythm and towering canyons of sound were surprising moments of beauty - Bach-like piano over what sounded like a distant harmonium of car horns, long soprano notes that suggested the call of urban wolves then, later, evoked Mahler-like soul searching.
Unsurprisingly the work is full of German business - all kinds of musical echoes of that country's perennial struggle with the mix of its cultural heritage, its fast-track, technological, urban present and the unavoidable Nazi ghost in the corner.
Surrogate Cities is as much a piece of music theatre as a symphony. John Rayment's and Willi Bopp's lighting and sound design, and Ali N.Askin's sampled sounds shored it all up, but the real dramatic meat was provided by singers Jocelyn B.Smith and David Moss.
Moss brought just the right degree of matter-of-factness and humour to the spoken sections, which might in lesser hands have sunk to depths of archness and pretentiousness.
Smith, too, brought virtuosity and an acute theatrical sense to the penultimate three-song suite the Horation. Ranging musically from pounding battle music worthy of any sword-and-sandal saga, to the aforementioned torch song, it was a truly epic performance, doing justice to an epic work and a bold festival launch.
Courier Mail (AU), 21 July 2003