Vivid Sydney daily report #2: Efterklang, Modular and APRA Song Summit

For day two of Vivid Sydney, FL was once again on ground at the Opera House. Caitlin Welsh headed to the Modular’s Night, Jim Poe saw Danish three-piece Efterklang and Katie Cunningham checked out day one of the APRA Song Summit – reviews and photos are below.

– Jim Poe

Approaching the Sydney Opera House on a chilly Saturday night, I get my first look at the light show that will grace its iconic ‘sails’ throughout Vivid – the illusory spectacle of a gigantic woman lying on the roof and idly knocking about its famous tiles. The projections are more elaborate than I remember from previous editions – a fitting harbinger for the elaborate music I encounter inside.

The Danish band Efterklang are in town for a performance specially commissioned by Vivid. Acclaimed for their lush, complex ‘indie chamber pop’, the group were invited to world-premiere songs from their unreleased fourth album, Pirmamida, at the Opera Theatre with the Sydney Symphony.

The Pirmamida Concert, as it’s called, is an excellent way to kick off a week of Vivid gigs, which tend toward the arty, the adventurous and – inevitably, because it’s the Opera House – the orchestral. It’s easy to make fun of the overweening ambition that can lead a pop performer to take on a posse of string players, but it’s actually produced some of the most memorable live music of recent years, from Portishead to Bjork to Sufjan Stevens (who performs here later this week).

And as the theatre hushes and the half dozen guys in Efterklang take the stage with the 30-plus members of the Symphony, the swirling sound that begins to reverberate in the room (the band’s name means ‘reverberation’) is suitably impressive, ethereal and autumnal – somehow crisp and delicate at once. The band’s stuff is a bit like Sufjan crossed with Arcade Fire – playing the flighty experimentalism of the former off the earthiness of the latter, with the moodiness of both – but the orchestra takes the material and shapes it into something effortlessly large and profound and timeless. A chorus of three female singers adds a subtly angelic touch; the sound is enhanced by electronic keyboards and effects, a welcome contrast to the classical instruments that seems perfectly natural. (The further we go into the future, the more electronica devours every other kind of music, but that’s another story.) Geometric shapes projected behind them (the album’s title means ‘pyramid’) add to the atmosphere.

Competing with conductor Matthew Coorey for space on the crowded stage, dressed in a salmon-coloured dinner jacket and jeans, lanky lead singer Casper Clausen is an impossibly twee but surprisingly charismatic frontman. His mincing steps, comic gestures and infectious energy (comparisons to David Byrne are unavoidable) provide an effective balance with the earnestness of the intricate music. His voice is powerful for such a skinny frame, reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. He and bassist Rasmus Stolberg both sport bowties and possibly un-ironic moustaches, and occasionally sip something out of mysterious metal bottles that rest on the stage. “They’re so Danish,” my friend says. And proud: at one point Clausen reminds us that Jørn Utzon, legendary designer of the place, was Danish too. This fact is also highlighted in the press material, so it’s clearly an important touchstone for them, and a reminder that the Opera House is one of the world’s great buildings.

The performance sags around the middle, some of the songs becoming unsatisfyingly thin and middle-of-the-road. The more successful numbers come across like orchestral or experimental constructions with pop elements woven in. These seem to be the ones arranged by collaborator Karsten Fundal, who is sitting in the audience (and eventually gets a bouquet of flowers chucked at him by the playful Clausen). The less successful ones reverse that formula, feeling like pop with an orchestra added, and get bogged down with overly cute choruses or melodies that don’t quite click.

I can’t help but be more interested in the Symphony. I’m not exactly qualified to critique them, but the overall effect of the sound is naturally hypnotic. The highlight of the concert is a two-part piece called Vælv, written by Fundal alone rather than the band. During the second part, the band leaves the stage entirely and the Symphony launches into a powerful extended movement that swoops and soars and flutters in layered lines of melody like something by beloved 20th- century English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. (An instinctive comparison, but it sort of makes sense, as Vaughan Williams innovated the practice of adapting folk tunes into pieces for large symphonies). The piece is ravishing, and earns the biggest applause of the night.

The closing number, Monument, is pretty good too, and features some terrific film projections – black-and-white footage of an expedition in some icy northern sea that suggests a narrative tying in with the music. It would have been nice to see more of this during the rest of the concert. As the performance winds down, the crowd is rapturous, demanding a couple of encores and eventually lavishing a standing ovation on the Danish dudes and the Symphony alike. The Pirmamida Concert did not hit every mark for me, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Saturday evening, and it’s impossible not to admire it as a musical achievement. Good on Vivid for making it happen as an exclusive one-off right here in Sydney.

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