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15 April 2009

MSO Chamber Players: Hall of Mirrors

Melbourne // VIC // 22.03.09

Brenton Broadstock Image: Brenton Broadstock  
© John Warren

The Iwaki Auditorium was full to capacity for the first concert for 2009 by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players. Aiming to present intimate performances as well as highlight the excellent individual abilities of MSO musicians, this side project of the orchestra has become a success since its inception a few years ago. In this first concert in a series of four planned for the year, the Chamber Players presented established works by Szymanowski, Saint-Saëns, and a new work by the MSO’s 2009 composer in residence, Brenton Broadstock.

Opening the concert was Karol Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 37. Composed between 1917 and 1919, the quartet is a lush and focussed work, written during a turbulent period in Szymanowski’s life. At times reflective and romantic, the quartet also features a number of techniques employed by Szymanowski to render a boldly modernist stretching of traditional tonality. Among these were the evident polytonal techniques of the last movement, and the plentiful use of colouristic instrumental effects such as bowing on the bridge, tremolos and flute-like harmonics. The MSO Chamber Players did well to balance the many timbral effects that are so integral to defining Szymanowski’s sound-world. Many of his fleeting ideas and visions were effectively realised at a localised level, while not distracting from the overarching structural direction of the work. Performance highlights included the lyricism of violinist Isin Cakmakcioglu’s high-register playing.

Following the interval was the only new work on offer in the program - Brenton Broadstock’s Hall of Mirrors (2009). Written for trombone, flute, clarinet, string quintet and percussion, this was a programmatic work that explored the concept of a musical hall of mirrors. Invited to introduce the work, Broadstock explained how the spatial and visual confounding of the senses, experienced when walking through a traditional hall of mirrors at a fun fair or amusement park, was the inspiration behind the work. In Broadstock’s piece, the composed musical hall of mirrors features the trombone as the cental protagonist who ‘moves through the hall, reacting with and against and dominating and driving the constantly changing musical material’.

Hall of Mirrors opened with a soft string texture of harmonic trills and glissandi, punctuated with the swells of bowed cymbals from percussionist Robert Clarke. Against this backdrop the trombone entered the tapestry of sonic reflections, providing muted melodic fragments and long slow glissandi – all beautifully controlled and balanced by the MSO’s principal trombonist Brett Kelly.

As the work developed, Hall of Mirrors revealed itself to be characterised by constantly changing instrumental colours and a strong sense of rhythmic propulsion. Broadstock displayed an excellent understanding of the expressive capabilities of the trombone, and the work successfully exploited the instrument's wonderful, singing quality. At times I would have liked to have heard a little more punch from the strings. This is not so much a criticism of the players but more an acknowledgement of the difficulties in blend and balance, posed by the instrumentation of the work. In the louder passages the dominant characteristics of the trombone and percussion against the lighter strings and winds occasionally threatened the ensemble balance.

Hall of Mirrors was very well received by the audience. The overall result seemed an effective and engaging realisation of Broadstock’s compositional intent. This was an accessible and enjoyable work, yet one also exhibiting a high level of craft and sophisticated engagement with its subject matter.

It was actually a little disappointing to have to step back in time and listen to Saint-Saëns’s Septet, Op. 65 (1880), the concluding work of the concert. The piece was written at the behest of the mathematician and music lover Emile Lemoine, who asked Saint-Saëns to include a trumpet in a chamber work. After initial reluctance, Saint-Saëns settled on trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and piano.

In performance the MSO Chamber Players were generally convincing in their traversing of the work and its four movements. The trumpet of Geoffrey Payne tended to feature, moving with relative ease from fanfare-like passages to smooth, lyrical lines, blended in unison with the strings. However, although equally well received by the audience and adequately played by the Chamber Players, the septet lacked the vigour of the preceding work. Despite being wedged between the Szymanowski and Saint-Saëns, it was Broadstock's Hall of Mirrors that gave this concert a sense of unity and resonating interest.

The next MSO Chamber Players concert is scheduled for 14th of June and will feature works for string quintet. Brenton Broadstock continues as composer in residence at the MSO, and among his upcoming works is a concerto for trumpet and orchestra due for premiere in September.

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Anthony Lyons is a Melbourne-based composer and teacher.



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