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Chamber orchestra

Australian music for chamber and string orchestra

For some decades after the establishment of the ABC in the 1930s, its state symphony orchestras provided the personnel for both symphonic and smaller, chamber orchestral repertoire. It may be that small core groups were more amenable to new music, and competent to play it, as the preponderance of ‘Sinfoniettas’ by mid-century composers like Robert Hughes and Dorian Le Gallienne suggests. The larger state orchestras continue to field smaller groups from time to time, notably in their increasingly ghettoised new music series; a band like the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra is by virtue of its size more suited to classical-sized scores, and contemporary works for ensembles of that size – as can be seen in its impressive body of recordings of Australian music. In Brisbane, the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra occupied a similar ecological niche before its amalgamation with the then Queensland Symphony Orchestra.

In 1975 the Australian Chamber Orchestra was formed; 24 years later a breathless London critic wondered if it were not the ‘best in the world’. Contemporary music represents a relatively modest part of the ACO’s activity, but it has premiered works by Brian Howard, Georges Lentz, Brett Dean, Andrew Ford, Carl Vine, Moya Henderson and others, and explored collaborations with musicians outside the classical fold. Visiting chamber orchestras, often touring under the auspices of Musica Viva or one or other annual festival, have been prevailed upon to include new Australian works – often premieres. Works by Colin Brumby and Anne Boyd, for instance, were introduced by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Lucerne Festival Strings.

Other groups which have commissioned new work include the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra (formerly Pro Arte) the Adelaide Chamber Orchestra, and the Academy of Melbourne (formerly the Mozart Collection). These are string-based, classical-sized bands that include new music as part of a much broader repertoire; in 1989 composer Roger Smalley formed the WASO 20th Century Ensemble to perform works for the London Sinfonietta-type lineup of 14 solo instruments. Although some smaller ensembles like Elision used routinely to augment for special occasions, there was little home-grown repertoire for mixed chamber orchestra, so Smalley commissioned new works from Australian composers including Gordon Kerry (yet another Sinfonietta) and Stephen Benfall. In 1993 the Australian Art Orchestra was formed by pianist Paul Grabowsky to explore the nexus between contemporary notated and improvised music; in 2001 the Adelaide Art Orchestra was founded by Timothy Sexton on a similar model.

Representative works

  Work Notes
Digital sheet music sample Strung-out (1988) by Roger Smalleyranges the string orchestra across the stage for breathtaking spatial effects.
Digital sheet music sample Concerto grosso (1989) by Carl Vinehas a concertino group of violin, flute, oboe and horn, and string orchestra.
Of distant sadness (1993) by Christine McCombea work for strings with a brooding, Shostakovichian quality.
Out of the blue (1994) by Nigel Westlakeenacts the emergence from a period of ‘blueness’ into this composer’s more characteristically buoyant state.
Digital sheet music sample Après nuages (1995) by Stephen Croninalmost imperceptibly considers a fragment of Debussy.
Strip (1991) by Michael Smetaninsizzles and glitters with harmonics and open strings.

Broader categories of Chamber orchestra

Sibling categories of Chamber orchestra