9 October 2009
Australia Ensemble 30 years
The Australia Ensemble recently celebrated its 30th birthday - and the 60th of the University of NSW - with a sensational concert, once again proving its status as our country's foremost chamber ensemble. The program showcased different combinations of the core ensemble - clarinet, flute, piano and four strings - in a program of piquant contemporary morsels balanced with the beefsteak of middle-period Beethoven, in this case, the second of the three great Razumovsky String Quartets, played by the Goldner String Quartet.
Formed in 1995, the quartet is drawn from the ensemble, and is named in honour of Musica Viva founder, Richard Goldner, a European refugee. This is an acknowledged debt to our post-war European chamber music protagonists. But it so happens that the Australia Ensemble is very much a home-grown product, brainchild of Roger Covell and Murray Khouri, who created a resident ensemble in the music department of the young University of New South Wales in 1980. Its ever popular subscription concerts have been held at the University's John Clancy Auditorium ever since. It is a great venue.
The current members of the ensemble are Dene Olding, violin; Dimity Hall, violin; Irina Morizova, viola; Julian Smiles, cello; Geoffrey Collins, flute; Catherine McCorkill, clarinet; and Ian Munro, piano.
When it comes to the performance of contemporary music, the Australia Ensemble has an excellent track record. I still vividly remember its premiere performance of Bozidar Kos's Catena II, one of my very first exposures to the world of contemporary music. The carefully crafted programs have always presented a fine balance of the old and the new, and this program was no exception. As always, the performance was illuminated by the definitive program notes of Roger Covell, eminent musicologist and Emeritus Professor of the UNSW School of English, Media and Performing Arts.
The program began with a work composed just before the outbreak of World War I by Eugene Goossens: the Suite Op. 6 for flute, violin and harp. The Anglo-Belgian Goossens began his musical career as a violinist and composer and was later to become a hugely influential figure in the development of Australia's musical heritage, as both the principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and through his directorship of the (then) New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. Goossens was a great interpreter of the music of his day, and it was entirely fitting that one of his compositions should begin this program - one of Eugene's harpist sisters, Marie or Sidonie, would certainly have played the harp at the work's premiere.
A compact work in three movements, Goossens's Suite owes a clear debt to French impressionism. In lesser hands this attractive work could easily have descended into a mélange of pseudo-Gallic prettiness, however the trio of violinist Dimity Hall, flautist Geoffrey Collins and guest harpist Louise Johnson brought a sinewy virtuosity to the piece, pointing up Goossens's quirky rhythmic devices and subtle effects. There was a great balance between violin and flute in their alternating roles as soloist and accompanist, with some lovely shading and colour from Geoffrey Collins's flute. With more pianissimos the climactic moments would have emerged more clearly from the texture - the playing was generally not soft enough. However, this is just a quibble, and the trio played with verve, bringing real joie de vivre to the jaunty last movement. This was a ravishing performance.
After the Goossens we were treated to the rarefied timbres of Toru Takemitsu with his 1977 work, Quatrain II, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The calm facade of Quatrain II belies a continuous inner tension, where the focal role of the instruments is evolving and changing. Often the clarinet takes the melodic line while the strings weave spidery contrapuntal lines around it in harmonic glissandi. For a piece which spends so much time in the upper registers, we needed much more bass from the piano - Ian Munro seemed to be holding back. Nevertheless, it is a testament to the musicians of the Australia Ensemble that they have cultivated such a traditionally conservative audience into an open-minded and attentive one: you could hear a pin drop during the Takemitsu.
Seven miniatures followed, commissioned by the ensemble in honour of the two birthdays. Each work featured different members and groupings of the ensemble. Most of the composers have enjoyed long working relationships with the Australia Ensemble via performances and recordings.
The first offering, by Raffaele Marcellino, was a frankly rollicking affair inspired by the memory of the legendary Australian pugilist, Les Darcy. Marcellino's Les Darcy Dances, dedicated to the brilliant pianist Ian Munro, evoked a rough-hewn Aussie charm with its heavily orchestrated block harmonies, and the full complement played with gusto.
The sparse textures of Andrew Ford's melancholy On Winter's Traces, the most substantial of the seven miniatures, transported the audience to a different world altogether. Ford also used the full forces of the ensemble, but with much finely nuanced orchestration, particularly the wan sound of the piccolo in its low register. However, in this work the distinctive timbre of the viola was the star of the show, and the performance featured some wonderfully heartfelt solo playing from the work's dedicatee, Irina Morizova. This was the longest and most serious of the seven miniatures and I was left wanting more. I hope the ensemble airs this work again soon.
One of the most fruitful collaborations to emerge from the Australia Ensemble's work has been with the composer Martin Wesley-Smith. The Ensemble has just released a disc devoted to his music, Merry-Go-Round, on Tall Poppies. With this in mind, I was looking forward to his contribution, a duo for clarinet and cello entitled Invention I. It was a major disappointment. The cello part consisted of a verbatim account of a Minuet from Bach's Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 to which was added a simple clarinet obbligato. The result was nothing more than an academic counterpoint exercise.
Ross Edwards's duo for alto flute and piano, Retrospective, was an infinitely more polished product. Retrospective displayed a beguiling elegance, Edwards's typically bouncy rhythmic writing adorned with sparkling piano glissandi. Geoffrey Collins and Ian Munro, the dedicatees, gave a scintillating account of this short, attractive work.
Beauty, by Matthew Hindson, the youngest of the Australian composers of this concert, featured the playing of cellist Julian Smiles. Hindson's piece alternated between solo passages for the cello with simple piano accompaniment, and brief passages for the entire ensemble where this material was developed. The cello writing was unashamedly slushy stuff (nothing wrong with that, of course - no other instrument does slush quite like a cello) and Smiles produced a delicious sound. However, the work was let down by some unimaginative ensemble writing, with its many unison lines and Philip Glass-like wind arpeggiations.
Peter Sculthorpe's tiny gem for clarinet and string quartet, A Little Song of Love, took its inspiration from the composer's long and enduring friendship with the Ensemble. This instrumentation usually involves the clarinet in a solo role, however Sculthorpe tucks the clarinet underneath the first violin melody to form a sentimental duo. Like many of the seven miniatures, it was surprising just how touching this work was. This elegant little song without words, from a master who is also celebrating a birthday, brings to mind an audience member who recently got up and asked Stephen Hough at the Stuart Challender Memorial Lecture, 'What music brings you to tears? For me it is Strauss's Four Last Songs and Small Town'. Cerebration, take a back seat.
The final premiere came from the pen of Elena Kats-Chernin, the only composer to take the celebratory theme literally, and her Birthday Miniature was terrific fun. It featured the entire ensemble and was scored for violin, piccolo, bass clarinet and a delightful assortment of small percussion and toy instruments, including melodicas, salad bowls, and a toy piano. Propelled by bass clarinet and violin, Kats-Chernin's signature motoric rhythms brought the first half to a rousing conclusion, and were immediately followed by all the composers taking to the stage with the performers to engage in a flurry of hugs, kisses and bows. It was a wonderful moment, and the audience roared their approval.
After this intensely interesting mix of repertoire from the past hundred years, it was time for the Beethoven magnum opus, his String Quartet in E minor, Op.59, No.2. Beethoven produced his three Razumovsky String Quartets just after the mighty Eroica Symphony and the Appassionata Sonata, and they are symphonic in their scope.
In the opening Allegro of the E minor quartet the thematic material is generally motivic and there are few periods of extended melody. This invests the entire movement with a sense of restlessness, and Beethoven heightens the inexorable tension by requesting not only the traditional exposition repeat but that of the entire development and recapitulation as well. True, this does render the movement a very long affair indeed, but it also helps to provide a balance and symmetry to both the movement and the work as a whole. Unfortunately, the Goldners omitted this second repeat and, as a result, the power of the great climax with its jarring dominant minor ninth was somewhat diluted.
One of Beethoven's sublime creations, the long cantilena lines of the slow movement provide an extraordinary contrast to the opening Allegro. Beethoven instructs the performers that the movement is 'to be played with great feeling', and the Goldners wrung every last drop of expression from each phrase. Their reading of this movement was the high point of the performance. There was some exquisitely voiced playing in the various renditions of the opening chorale theme, with some wonderfully hushed pianissimos which had been somewhat lacking in the previous movement. This was very sophisticated music-making.
The Goldners' rather genteel approach to the third movement was not as convincing, although part of the reason could be laid at the composer's door, Beethoven's tempo indications being somewhat contradictory. Beethoven's very fast metronome marking is at odds with his more laid-back indication of allegretto. The Goldners opted for a slow tempo, and as a result Beethoven's obsessively repeated syncopations lacked urgency and deprived the fortissimos of explosive quality.
This was most problematic in the movement's trio, based on a rather squarish Russian theme, included at the behest of the works' dedicatee, Russian Count Razumovsky. Beethoven drives the tune into the ground with a near contemptuous fugal treatment, but in this performance the slow tempo felt at odds with the composer's intent.
The concluding presto was a far more satisfying affair. The Goldners played this technically difficult movement with flair and virtuosity, ending with a terrific bolt for the finish in the concluding più presto.
For my taste, the interpretation of this work inclined towards emphasis on beauty of tone at the expense of forward momentum. Nevertheless, it was a very fine performance indeed and made for a winning close to one of the most finely crafted programs I have ever heard. How refreshing it was to hear new Australian music programmed alongside Beethoven!
The concert will be broadcast on ABC Classic FM on 9th December - don't miss it.
Australia Ensemble @ UNSW
Music by Eugene Goossens, Raffaele Marcellino, Andrew Ford, Martin Wesley-Smith, Ross Edwards, Matthew Hindson, Elena Kats-Chernin, Takemitsu, Beethoven
12 September 2009
Sir John Clancy Auditorium, UNSW, Kensington, NSW
More event details in the AMC Calendar
Australia Ensemble (http://www.ae.unsw.edu.au/)
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Geoffrey Gartner is a freelance cellist, conductor and writer living in Sydney. He is a passionate advocate of the Fluxus ethos.
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