30 October 2006

Ethel’s Greatest Hits

MIAF 2006
Ethel’s Greatest Hits
and Melbourne International Arts Festival
14 October 2006
the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall

Review by Christina Cass

Last night at Hammer Hall I went to see the Australian debut of Ethel, one of concert music’s most exciting and energetic string ensembles. Their irreverent style – not a tux in sight – included casual interaction with the audience and spontaneous improvisation showing how important communication is within an ensemble.

Trust, skill and fearlessness separate the men from the boys, and the women from the girls, in creating truly unique and personal interpretations of music and theatre. Flying hair, shredding bows and broken strings are all part of the speed and heat with which Ethel plays. Let’s put it this way, I hope Ethel doesn’t drive the way they play; otherwise they will be locked up in no time.

This Julliard-trained, all-star foursome is Ralph Farris (viola), Dorothy Lawson (cello), Mary Rowell (violin) and Cornelius Dufallo (violin). They have been shaking up the New York music scene since 1998. Ethel has brought to its music an exciting, beautiful and rare combination of tastes and talents that has developed from each member's unique experiences in the music world. Members of Ethel have performed and/or recorded with Bang On A Can, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony, CONTINUUM, and with Sheryl Crow, Roger Daltrey and Yo-Yo Ma, among many others.

Ethel’s first piece, the bluesy Sweet HardWood (1998) by John King, had three movements which made me think of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, sex on the bayou and the unmistakable feeling of dark heat and loneliness of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. I just had a stupid smile on my face that made me bob and weave back to the sweaty, Southern shores of the USA.

Next, New York composer Phil Kline wrote The Blue Room specifically for Ethel in 2002. He describes, “In four movements of alternating moods, two meditations are followed by urgent dances; juxtaposing, as it seems to me now, how the earth is doing versus how the world is doing.“ When I closed my eyes, I saw cockroaches in a dark and damp New York apartment building. Now that’s not a bad thing – but clearly the work brought about some very specific and powerful images.
The very complicated Shadow Quartet (2005) by Neil Rolnick is an homage and celebration of his own father’s life and death. Here Ethel has interwoven the pre-recorded electronic sounds of a hospital room with their live music to a startling effect of discordant sounds paralleling the terrible counterpoint of a dying man’s last breaths. Not easy listening by any measure.

The more successful Early That Summer (1993) by Julia Wolfe, was the final piece of the evening and brought back the sheer energy and power of Ethel. They introduced the piece as “incredibly difficult to play” and as anticipation slowly climaxed into shredded bows igniting the stage with heat and sound, the audience was finally released into a steady stupor.

We had truly witnessed an ensemble of extraordinary skill and passion. Ethel is playing two shows as part of MIAF and then go on to Shepparton and Bendigo. Try not to miss Ethel’s unique experience.

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