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29 October 2009

The Girl with the Golden Flute: Sharon Bezaly with the ACO

Sydney // NSW // 20.10.2009

Sharon Bezaly Image: Sharon Bezaly  
© Anders Krison

In the Australian Chamber Orchestra's latest offering, there were new works by Peteris Vasks and José Serebrier. There was also, of course, the celebrated Israeli flautist Sharon Bezaly - star of the Swedish BIS label (of which her husband, Robert von Bahr, is founder) - and her 24-carat gold specially made Muramatsu flute.

Handel's Concerto grosso in B flat is the first work to be treated to the high spirits and enthusiasm of the ACO. The fugal Allegro springs forth from a brief Largo introduction, played as one echoing voice. Warm sound fills the light space of the City Recital Hall; rich tone reverberates in every ear. While a second Largo is perhaps slightly cumbersome in performance, it still achieves a gentle lullaby lilt. There is a particularly magical moment as the strings melt out of the harpsichord. The final 'Hornpipe' is joyful and vital, with its folk-dance characters greatly accentuated.

The opening of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks's Vox amoris is pure magic - soft tremolo chords humming like a choir in an old movie; the soundtrack as a scene of wonder unfolds. The harmonies are sparse, but heavily perfumed with emotional impact. It is a moment of great beauty and depth.

Soloist Richard Tognetti (this is one of the series of pieces commissioned to celebrate Tognetti's twenty years at the helm of the ACO) sings over the top of the quiet lower strings, creating a sense of lonely solitude. These vast distances are sometimes reversed, with the upper strings taking over the supporting role and Tognetti delving into the honey tones of his low register. The sound of the accompanying ensemble reverberates around the room like Tibetan singing bowls.

The melancholy continues beyond this introduction, but there is a sense of building courage and determination. In the first of two soliloquies (I am hesitant to brand them 'cadenzas', a term so laden with connotations of a shallow, virtuosic display), the soloist battles with personal demons, steeling his resolve. It is breathtakingly dramatic at this point, and Tognetti plays deep into his strings, so serious in his characteristic bent-knee pose. As the other instruments re-enter - with some attempt at a calming influence falling upon the deaf ears of infatuation - the music becomes increasingly romantic in style, not shying away from theatrical excess. This is where the pure beauty begins to give way to increasing melodrama.

As climactic explosion followed climactic explosion, I am sorry to report that this listener became somewhat lost at sea. The work had so much to say, and it insisted on saying it, to the point where I thought I might have been listening to a ranting teenager, consumed by emotion. I was no longer able to let the piece have full command of my emotions. At the point where the original themes and colours returned it took me a moment to reconnect, so much had happened since then, and I felt like I had been listening for long hours instead of just ten minutes (indeed the piece was stretched to an unexpected - and arguably unnecessary - twenty-five). Icy lead into mellow to close, and I was left dissatisfied as it lacked closure to the detailed emotional narrative that had carried through the work.

With the intentional theme of 'the greatest power in the world - love', Vox amoris successfully encounters the range of emotions associated with being in love. It brings to mind personal romances the listener has experienced over time, and tinges them with nostalgia and melancholy. As the work goes on, it also saturates them with excessive drama. However, for the most part this work achieves a great variety of colour and expression without resorting to too many overused and abused extended techniques - those that did appear (bow clacks, harmonics) were treated with integrity and musical sensitivity. This was a great relief, as I had felt early on that it was a work in danger of resorting to gimmick, mostly due to the extreme amount of emotional intensity it aspired to.

Enter Sharon Bezaly - the Israeli flautist who picked up her instrument at 11 and was performing as soloist with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic at 14 - and she does not walk onto the stage so much as stride. She is donned in a pink-gold number and her trademark chunky black heels, with hair flopping past her shoulders, holding her 24-carat gold flute like a trophy. There is an uncomfortable moment where she hitches up the front of her dress before she lifts the instrument to her lips for the first of her two feature works for the evening. It is Carl Vine's Pipe Dreams, the virtuosic piece composed for flautist extraordinaire Emmanuel Pahud to perform with this same orchestra.

While undoubtedly technically brilliant, Bezaly lacks some substance to both her sound and her musicality. Her tone rarely finds any form of colourific variation and her dynamic range is unable to keep up with the force of the ACO, which swallows her whole on several occasions. What's more, her attitude on stage appears self-absorbed and aloof - she and Tognetti barely communicate, and the orchestra comes across uncharacteristically cold. Despite this, Carl Vine's dramatically fanciful work is handled with flair, and Bezaly's comfortable treatment of technical passages (darting lightly across the range of her instrument in great stretched arpeggios, or running up scales with the sparkle of a shooting star) leads to impressed applause from the audience.

Uruguay conductor-composer José Serebrier's commissioned Flute Concerto with Tango is much better suited to Bezaly's style. Written to cater to her especial talents of rapid articulation, super-human virtuosity and circular breathing, it wastes no time on delicate melodies and launches directly into an almost impossible display of technique. Beside the flourishes of the solo part, the string accompaniment is auditory relief at best and insubstantial background noise at worst. The alto flute, promised for the fourth movement Tango Inconcluso, never appeared - and I wasn't entirely convinced the movement did either, which was a little strange. Bezaly bubbles through the perpetually liquid and spectacular final movement, but this serves to confirm suspicions that the work could only be played by a very select handful of flautists the world over. This is perhaps a show piece, for Bezaly only, rather than something that has potential to enter standard repertoire for flautists - as per Bezaly's wish (she aspires to contributing to the flute player's inventory by commissioning new works).

More awed applause and Sharon emerges, brandishing her flute aloft like a javelin, to play a ridiculously virtuosic piece based on a Swedish folk-tune by way of an encore. After overdosing on romance and drama early in the evening, we have now been force-fed technical brilliance to over double our usual capacity. I feel like I have eaten an entire chocolate mud cake.

Without Sharon Bezaly, the orchestra is once again the jovial and committed ensemble audiences across the country (the world!) flock to hear. Tchaikovsky's Serenade for strings is taken at a brisk pace and interpreted with rather heavier bow strokes and phrasing than one is accustomed to hearing, but it was honestly refreshing to hear the musicians on stage having a great deal of fun. The musicians played equally for themselves as well as their audience, and that's what makes it so special. Nothing gets in the way as we are carried away by the music.

Event Details

The Girl with the Golden Flute
Australian Chamber Orchestra with Sharon Bezaly
Music by Handel, Vasks, Carl Vine, Sebrier and Tchaikovsky
Director, Solo violin Richard Tognetti
Flute Sharon Bezaly

Tuesday 20 October, 2009
City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, NSW

Further Links

Carl Vine - AMC
Australian Chamber Orchestra concert program
Sharon Bezaly - artist website
Peteris Vasks - artist webiste
José Serebrier - artist website

Hannah Reardon-Smith is a flautist, radio announcer, writer, singer, teacher, arts administrator and vegetarian. After graduating from her BMus at the Qld Con in 2008, she's keeping herself busy by saying yes to everything - completing a mentorshop through Youth Arts Queensland under Janet McKay, getting an ensemble by the name of Musicians Against Complacency off the ground, freelancing as a contemporary flautist, announcing on 4MBS Classic FM, administrating for Southern Cross Soloists and Clocked Out and giving a music class at the Mater Hospital Special School. Hannah has been awarded the AYO Music Presentation Fellow in 2008 and 2009.


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