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Enter an Imaginary New World with PLEXUS

Enter an Imaginary New World with PLEXUS

Melbourne Recital Centre favourites and stalwarts of Melbourne's new music scene, PLEXUS performs more premieres in a year than most ensembles play in their lifetimes. Ahead of its forthcoming concert, PLEXUS: Paracosm, founding member Stefan Cassomenos tells us more about this ensemble’s unique character and what you can expect to hear at their show. 

What makes PLEXUS different to other chamber ensembles? 

One thing that really sets PLEXUS apart is our presentation of new works. In the six years of our existence, we have commissioned over 100 new works. It’s no accident: our mission is to continue the work of the Verdehr Trio, who over the last 40 years commissioned over 200 works for the unusual combination of violin, clarinet and piano, a genre which previously contained only eight works!

Our unique instrumental combination gives us a large tonal palette – it's like a mini symphony orchestra with a wind section (Philip Arkinstall plays all the clarinets, from Bass through to E-flat, and even the saxophone!) and a string section (Monica Curro on violin) and the rest is filled out by the multicoloured and extremely versatile modern piano.

Why is it so important to perform new compositions and which composers are you drawn to?

We love giving composers a platform upon which to shine, and we often seek out lesser known and emerging composers whose voices we feel need to be heard. As part of our curatorial collaborations at both the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia, we have sometimes asked composers to respond to certain art works, tapestries, sculptures or whole exhibitions, but in our regular concerts we try not to be at all prescriptive about what our composers should write for us.

PLEXUS especially loves working with singers and text – this seems to be a very satisfying way to tell stories through music, and also adds another dimension to our soundscape.

How has your focus on commissioning new music changed your perspective on existing works?

We still vigilantly program pre-existing works, even if we didn't commission them, so that these pieces continue to have a life and a voice after the world premiere.

A related, unique aspect of PLEXUS is that we can play anything we like from the standard repertoire of the classical canon. As a composer myself, I have arranged many works for the trio. In this way, we have performed works by Mahler, Strauss, Barber, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel, Faure, and Lili Boulanger. Monica and Philip have been full time principals of professional symphony orchestras for decades, and my work as a pianist has always involved lots of traditional solo piano repertoire, concertos and chamber music, so standard repertoire is in all of our DNA.

What can you tell us about your upcoming Melbourne Recital Centre concert, PLEXUS: Paracosm?

Our final concert of 2019 is not to be missed, as it features outstanding soloists Deborah Cheetham, Liane Keegan, and Christian Smith, it features the newly formed vocal ensemble Vox Plexus which on this occasion includes a large contingent of wonderfully talented children from the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, it features the world premiere of one of the leading voices of contemporary composition in Australia, Deborah Cheetham, and it features two thrilling works by Australian composers Stuart Greenbaum and Stefan Cassomenos. 

What was the inspiration for the title: Paracosm?

The word applies to John of Patmos as the visions which he wrote down in the Book of Revelation, are visions of an extraordinarily detailed imaginary world. This was the impetus for the title of our concert. The music in this concert is our own paracosm – an imaginary new world of music.

My composition Requiem for the End of Time combines English texts from the Book of Revelation with the Latin Mass for the Dead, in a journey through the possessed paracosm of John of Patmos in his instant of apocalyptic epiphany, as he wrote down the visions which he believed he was receiving directly from God. (You can read Limelight magazine’s four star review of the premiere with Deborah Cheetham here.)

What can you tell us about some of the other pieces featured in PLEXUS: Paracosm?

Stuart Greenbaum’s piece Dance Music for Concert Halls takes us on a cultural expedition through a diverse heritage of Afro-American, English, Balkan and Latin dances, in an exploration of what it means to listen to dance music while sitting still. In Greenbaum’s own words:

‘There is a form of 'dance music' in the classical tradition whose purpose does not require any dancing. And I often wonder what it means, therefore, to listen to dance music while sitting still. Of course, there's an inner dance that lifts and moves the spirit and I have always been attracted to music of any age or genre that does that.’

We are especially thrilled to be giving a world premiere of a new work commissioned by PLEXUS. This will be the third world premiere we have performed by prolific Yorta Yorta composer and Melbourne Recital Centre Life Member Deborah Cheetham. Deborah Cheetham is a magnificent soprano, and one of the leading voices of contemporary composition in Australia. What makes collaboration with Deborah particularly meaningful for us at PLEXUS is her deeply felt and passionately sincere engagement with the subject matter of all the projects to which she devotes herself. We are humbled to be so deeply involved in many of Deborah’s projects, to have had the opportunity to perform alongside the magnificent Dhungala Children’s Choir which was formed by Deborah in 2009, and to share the stage with a musician of Deborah’s calibre in so many different contexts. Speaking about her work Insieme (Italian meaning ‘Together’ – in Yorta Yorta ‘Yapaneyepuk’), Deborah says:

‘In this work there are dominant themes which give rise to competitive striving. We search for the common goal but are so often out of step. We are swept into a way of being, which allows no time for the soul to breathe. Even as we draw near to one another we struggle to find a state in which we might describe ourselves as together. Despair and determination compete. The rare unison moment is celebrated. But still the question remains. What will it take to bring us together?’

Melbourne pianist Stefan Cassomenos is a founding member of PLEXUS, and a featured composer in their upcoming concert PLEXUS: Paracosm. 

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