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8 September 2008

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, aka Australia Pro Arte

Melbourne // VIC // 17.08.2008

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra Image: Melbourne Chamber Orchestra  
© John Tsiavis

Australia Pro Arte’s August programme, under the direction of Benjamin Northey, was their usual mixture of something old, something new and something a bit out of the ordinary. Mozart and Haydn gave us the established works; Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music in Memory of Béla Bartók was the left-of-centre example; while the ensemble gave the first performance of Melbourne-based Christopher Willcock’s Divertimento for Strings.

Willcock is chiefly known for his choral music and his best work, by far, comes from that arena. The Gospel Bestiary (1999), composed for the Tallis Scholars, is a superb creation that desperately needs resurrection. It would be fair to suggest that Willcock has concentrated on vocal due to circumstances and commissions. When you are able to provide solid work that fits the strengths of a commissioning group, then word gets around, and you are pigeon-holed in a certain way. However, the Divertimento for Strings will not be the work that breaks the typecasting.

Willcock has undoubtedly styled the work on Shostakovich’s language – not unsurprising, as Willcock has a lot of time for the Russian composer. It is Shostakovich’s take on socialist realism, sprinkled with a dissonance dusting, which loiters around the edges of the Divertimento. The opening movement has a forward motion of marching music that immediately energises the imagination towards men in uniform, with banners proclaiming utopian optimism. The driving aggression for the full ensemble alternates with more introspective chamber moments – thus giving the movement a healthy balance of ebb and flow.

The second movement has as its centre that particular Shostakovich quality whereby the lyrical passages urge the listener to be convinced that uneasiness lurks beneath the surface.

The finale allows for soloists to appear from the ranks. William Hennessy (violin), Justin Williams (viola) and Michelle Wood (cello) handled their tasks without cause for concern. However, the amount of time issued to them seemed too drawn-out, while the rest of the ensemble became temporary audience members. Is it not Composition 101 that drums into students not to under-utilise the ensemble membership? I realise I’m being highly critical, as the piece overall lived up to its name of being a divertimento, i.e. an amusement. It deserves more hearings.

Before the commencement of the concert there was a grand launch of the ensemble’s new name and the new venue for its 2009 season. Australia Pro Arte is now known as the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and the Recital Hall will be its new home. I suppose the new name gives the ensemble some centralised branding, but will their aging audience go those two kilometres to hear them in the new space? The Edge, for all its acoustic faults, is well situated in the heart of the city, and venue convenience is as important as the repertoire they are trying to sell.


Subjects discussed by this article:

Joel Crotty is the Associate Dean (Graduate Research), Faculty of Arts, Monash University. He was a member of the Australian Music Centre Board between 1997 and 2003.


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