In his final direction of the Sydney Festival, Noonuccal Nuugi theater maker Wesley Enoch has channeled his programming energies into Indigenous storytelling, play making, and music. His priorities come at a crucial moment in Australia’s cultural history; they ask audiences to be aware of First Nations’ issues and contributions, through the power of artistic expressions. The progressive vision charts into new territory, and delves into questioning the relevance of inherited European traditions to contemporary Australia.

Australian classical music making has been referenced by the traditions of the European canon since white settlement, and it is only since the influx of migration, and more recent acts of reconciliation with Australia’s First Nation people, that we have seen the country’s composers claim their multicultural voices. In the contemporary art-music sphere, composers such as the late Peter Sculthorpe – urged by Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington – have embraced collaborations with Indigenous instruments such as the didgeridoo.

Enoch’s festival has opened the door to contemporary art music that is more aligned with the European heritage. In his dedicated Salon Series and some one-off events, his invitation is particularly Australia-centric, and more particularly Sydney centric, with Ensemble Offspring, composer Elena Kats-Chernin, and pianists Simon Tedeschi, Bernadette Harvey, and Tamara-Anna Cislowska flying the local flag.

A key performance in this year’s festival was Liza Lim’s 2018 work Atlas of the Sky, a staged oratorio for soprano (Jessica Aszodi), percussion ensemble (Speak Percussion), and a 16-voice citizen-chorus crowd, presented at the City Recital Hall. National Sawdust audiences encountered Lim’s curatorial voice in her role as director of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Composing Women Project, which presented an event last September. There, concertgoers witnessed the work of Australian female composers Georgia Scott, Peggy Polias, Brenda Gifford, Josephine Macken, and Bree van Reyk, in a very sparky program of premieres commissioned for the revolutionary flutist and MacArthur fellow Claire Chase. (Lim and Chase will collaborate anew in Sex Magic, a 45-minute staged work for flutes and percussion, at the Kitchen in May, as part of Chase’s ongoing “Density 2036” project.)

Lim is an outstanding composer of her generation; in his December list of the decade’s most significant music, Alex Ross of The New Yorker gave Lim a generous nod for Tongue of the Invisible, her multi-cultural song cycle. Atlas of the Sky ranks in a similar league, and the ritualistic, through-composed oratorio succeeds as one of Lim’s most accessible compositions. We are witnessing a composer in the prime of her career.

The spine of Lim’s libretto is built on three poems: “The Stars,” an excerpt from An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger, and two poems by Chinese poet Bei Dao: “The Answer” and “Whetting” from The Rose of Time. Lim’s poetic extractions highlight the mystical qualities of celestial bodies. She excerpts hypnotic, alluring lines, such as: “the stars; what are they: they are holes in the great curtain between us and the sea of light.” The settings of these extracts segue to military-styled treatments of Bei’s protestations: “I don’t believe the sky is blue; I don’t believe in thunder’s echoes.”

Lim’s intricately crafted score creates a kaleidoscopic display of textures. We are immersed in a narrative that unfolds organically. The motivic cells transition from one idea to another with deft elegance. Her score asks us to wonder, and to wander. Her percussion resources reflect her multi-cultural view. Lim’s scoring of a semantron – a large, suspended wooden plank used in Eastern Orthodox churches – alongside Japanese Den-den daiko drums and Indonesian spinning tops give us an experience of an ineffable place and time.

It is easy to understand how Lim was inspired by her chosen performers. Speak Percussion’s musical director, Eugene Ughetti, and his fellow percussionists, Kaylie Melville and Matthias Schack-Arnott, eloquently animate Lim’s landscapes and musical conversations – articulating the shimmering dazzles of the stars with light finesse, and pounding more gravitas into the earthy drums. Soprano Jessica Aszodi masters the virtuosic narrative, capitalizing on her appealing clear soprano timbre, even range, and well-nuanced vibrato. She emphatically delivers the encyclopedic range of vocalizations demanded by Lim’s score.

Atlas of the Sky captures our attention for 50 minutes. We are completely absorbed. We are happy to be taken on this journey into a mystical world of ritual and poetic drama, where musicians and crowd chorus move in ceremonious steps. But it is at this mark that we begin to lose attention. Despite the magnetic pull of the excellent score, the performance deserts us. We are left suspended. Who is this woman on stage, and why is she singing to us? As our guiding narrator, we want to know more about her than her contribution as interlocutor of philosophical messages.

As the piece proceeds, the diction becomes less distinct, partly because of the amplification and partly because the score is driven by aural textures, rather than words. We catch only a few fragments of the text. The score also tends to obfuscates its direction to the end with superfluous codas.

At this point there is a sensation of regret – a collective shuffle of the seat – and a momentary feeling of the proverbial what if? We wonder what might have eventuated if a director and a choreographer steered this work. Perhaps an absolute success? I think so.

Later, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Ode: Sonata Project, a piano recital conceived by Bernadette Harvey, occupied War Room, an installation by Cornelia Parker. We are immersed in a red, tent-like room wallpapered with remnant cut outs from the paper poppy badges created for Remembrance Day. Parker is a British artist who collates everyday objects, then ossifies these moments to create a hiatus. Like many of her creations, War Room offers the feeling that time is suspended.

Harvey seized the opportunity to explore works inspired by war, and to forward her musical goals. In a bid to correct the paucity of piano sonatas composed today, Harvey is on a commissioning mission. For the Sydney Festival, Harvey performed Peggy Polias’s extensive 2019 Sonata: Ode, a musical recollection on a 4,000-year-old Summerian poem, The Exaltation of Inana. It is a tale of exile, and Polias capitalizes on silences and pizzicato-like plucks sounds to create the feelings of extradition and conflict. There is a restless, searching quality in this expansive work. For the pianist, the piece is physically demanding. Harvey vanquishes the demands.

Harvey reflects the war themes of Parker’s room with her programming of Nachklänge, by German composer Ruth Schonthal. The evocative 10-movement solo recalls the composer’s recollections of childhood in Nazi Germany. The piece vivifies Schonthal’s memories, juxtaposing the melodies of piano lessons – rendered through fragments of folk songs, nursery rhymes, and Bach excerpts – with a background of war. The work can be described as prepared piano work: the composer asks the pianist to layer the piano’s strings with objects lying around the home. The effect is at once haunting and disturbingly pretty.

The curation of a recital in an art installation setting is provocative, and not always as easy as it appears. In the case of Harvey’s program, in Parker’s War Room, we are both frozen in time and listening to time in motion. This apposition accounts perhaps for why I was preoccupied and uneasy throughout the recital—as if the weight of the installation’s contemplation on the lost soldiers of war was bearing on me from one direction, and the movement of music was pulling me in another.

As an opera singer, writer, cultural commentator and curator Xenia Hanusiak contributes to the stage, the page, and the intervals in between. She holds a PhD in Literature and several degrees in classical music. Her works for the stage include the play Ward B, Un_labelled (Boosey & Hawkes/Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Venice Biennale); Earth Songs (Homart Korean Theatre); and the dramatic monologue The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet).

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.