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Culture under canvas

Two very different musical performances at the Melbourne Arts Festival offer pointers for future Bangkok events

Published on October 31, 2007

Culture under canvas


One of the perks of attending any multi-arts international festival is that you usually end up catching some performances that you didn't plan to see. Organisers of these events are aware of this fact and skilfully help things along by scheduling programmes that don't only complement one another but also allow paying audiences to attend more than one event of a different genre on the same evening, without suffering cultural overload.

Perhaps they want us to try something new and fresh - preventing theatre buffs, dance aficionados and music fans from pigeon holing themselves and helping them become true performing arts lovers instead.

My second day at the Melbourne International Arts Festival 2007 started with a call from the festival's publicist offering me a ticket to a classical recital by Israeli pianist Pnina Becher, who was making her Australian debut at 6pm. Although both she and I knew that I would be able to watch only the first half, as I had a ticket for the jazz concert by the Melbourne-based Dead Horse Band at 7pm, I gladly accepted the offer.

Walking through the bustling Federation Square, I found a quiet retreat at the multi-purpose venue called BMW Edge. I was surprised not to see any promotional cars, pretty presenters or the company's logo, and was even more amazed to discover a 450-seat hall with a crystalline web of glass interlaced with a steel and zinc framework. From most of the seats, the audience could also enjoy the sights of the Yarra River and the adjacent Alexandra Gardens during springtime twilight.

The pianist charmed the audience with her powerful renditions of timeless compositions, including Scarlatti's Sonatas and Chopin's "Nocturnes" and "Premiere Ballade". The experience was so enticing that I was reluctant to leave at the interval. I did tear myself away, however, as I wanted to watch the local jazz ensemble at the nearby Spiegeltent.

This temporary canvas and wood structure has travelled to Sydney, Auckland and Edinburgh this past year. In Melbourne, it has been set up on the forecourt of the Arts Centre and was an integral part of the festival.

Spiegeltent was open from noon to 3am everyday and from 1pm on several days for "In Conversation" - a free-admission talk with the artists hosted by the artistic director herself. A few performances were scheduled in the evenings and at all other times, it was a popular place for drinks or snacks with an always-open bar set up at the back of the tent. The festival has now finished, but there are programmes scheduled through mid-December in the tent.

With original compositions that tread the borders of many genres, Dead Horse Band - featuring musicians on two violins, viola, cello, piano, drums, electric guitar and electric bass, plus a conductor - took the audience to places both in and outside this world.

During brief pauses between compositions, talented composer Kate Neal talked about one of her inspirations - the fact that Einstein's Relativity Theory was inspired by music. Towards the end of the memorable one-hour performance, she also thanked the musicians for their immense efforts in playing her "highly abstracted" pieces, saying that "anything you struggle for, or with, in life is important".

Well, that's very true but it also explained what, to me, was the only minor flaw in their performance - the musicians looked overly intense throughout and had little chance to interact with the audience.

The applause was less enthusiastic than I expected, perhaps because the festival programme didn't clearly describe the music, or maybe because some of us were expecting a less cutting-edge evening of standard or contemporary jazz.

Walking out of the Spiegeltent that night, I spotted a souvenir magnet with a painting of a sexually unidentified person and an inspirational sentence reading "Life is not about finding yourself, it's about creating yourself".

Many friends wondered why this reviewer chose to overlook the more vibrant Sydney and visit only Melbourne on this trip, even neglecting kangaroos, platypuses and koalas to hang around the Arts Centre. To me, the answer was obvious: when the festival organiser has spent such effort and creativity in staging this showcase, the Garden City is the Southern Hemisphere's only cultural destination come October.

These two music events offered solid examples of how venues - the spatial relationship between the performers and the audience - can complement live performing arts. It is something Thai festival organisers may want to consider.

This reviewer couldn't help thinking about those temporary tents set up next to Thailand Cultural Centre - this Arts Centre's counterpart - during many cultural events. While the former promises "rare acts of curiosity and fantastical skill" all year round, the latter seem to serve only as venues for receptions for VIP guests by the event's corporate sponsors.

Special thanks to the festival's publicist Lior Albeck-Ripka for the media ticket to attend Pnina Becher's recital.

Pawit Mahasarinand

 The Nation


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