Australia Ensemble

On Saturday I went to hear the Australia Ensemble, a chamber music group “resident at the University of New South Wales.”

The ensemble has been existence for 25 years, but for many years I didn’t get to hear them, mainly because, for most of this time, I didn’t have a car, and their concert venue, the John Clancy Auditorium (which is UNSW’s ceremonial auditorium) is otherwise, coming from Sydney’s inner west, where I have lived for most of this time, rather inaccessible.  Last year I started going to hear them and, this year, I subscribed.

The ensemble is the brainchild of Roger Covell, for many years the Professor of Music at UNSW and the Sydney Morning Herald’s chief music critic.  Its permanent core  comprises a string quartet, piano, flute and clarinet.  This is supplemented by guest artists as the occasion demands.  They give 6 Saturday-night concerts a year in their subscription series, as well as workshops and other artist-in-residence type performances at the university.  In earlier years, the ensemble undertook a certain amount of touring, but that seems to have fallen off in the last few years, partly, I suspect, owing to the other commitments of some of the ensemble’s members, and in particular of Dene Olding, the first violinist, who is also co-concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Every audience, and particularly every subscription audience, has its own special “flavour.”  I had to laugh (not out loud, but inwardly) when I first went last year, because there was something very familiar about this audience.  My father taught for almost thirty years at UNSW, and when I encountered this audience, I felt that I was amongst people just like my father’s friends and colleagues.  As indeed I was.  You get the feeling that, even if not out aloud, people are still addressing each other as “Professor,” “Dean” and “Chancellor,” even though these offices (emeriti aside) have long since been relinquished. 

There is a certain style to such people, at least in a group.  The women dress well, but not flashily.  Few of the men wear ties.  UNSW is in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, and (though as with all universities, its commercial faculties now have a greater sway) was originally a scientific and technically oriented university.  The faculty, I think, at its establishment phase at least, probably had more Jewish emigre members than, for example, the University of Sydney.  These are a different sort of person from the (I think, Hungarian) Jews one sees (though less, now: everyone is getting older) at the opera.  Of course this is all very much an impression, and doubtless the audience is as gentile as any other audience in Australia, and that which I feel as “Jewish” might just as well simply be Mitteleuropean.

They are a loyal and attentive audience.  This has some comic aspects, which I know I too participate in.  Last year, the clarinettist, Catherine McCorkill, had put on a bit of weight, and the women just behind me at every concert would whisper to each other “Is she pregnant?” (time has proven that conjecture wrong).  Conversely, at the last concert, when Irina Morozova  came onto the stage, I heard these women whisper “Hasn’t she lost a lot of weight?” and “It’s an inspiration!” (She had, and it was.)  I am not immune to this element of musician-watching.  I expect that in another 20 years I will still be thinking what a nice-looking young man the cellist, Julian Smiles, is. (The picture on the link doesn’t do him justice: he looks much more fetching in action and, of course, white tie does add a certain something.)  But beyond this comedic element, this an audience of good listeners.  This is part of the magic of live performance, and especially live acoustic performance, where everybody must stay quiet in an almost prayerful silence (obviously, I am not thinking of Pentecostalism here) of concentration and appreciation.

It is notoriously difficult to muster and maintain any classical music audience.  The audience for the Australia Ensemble is obviously a tribute to the power and economy of the UNSW internal mail system, which Roger Covell must have put to great and good use in years gone by.  University staff (as well as UNSW graduates and students of all institutions) get a special concessional rate, as do “Seniors”.   Ticket prices, even without such concessions, are very reasonable, and the parking is easy. 

 I go to these concerts with P.  I first met P over 30 years ago.  She learnt piano from N, the piano teacher of D, my then piano teacher.  When D travelled to Italy for further studies, I, too, learnt from N.  Some years later, when I resumed learning in my mid-20s, P taught me for 3 or 4 years, at a substantial discount to the proper rate.  We haven’t always kept in touch since then, but it still feels as if we know each other well and it is good to catch up with her at each concert.  An added pleasure (and convenience) is that, as I live on her way to the concert, she picks me up and drops me home.

But what of the music?  On this occasion, we heard:

BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Serenade in D major for flute, violin and viola Opus 25 (1801)

Andrew FORD (b 1957): Oma kodu for clarinet and string quartet – first performance

Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b 1960): Lullaby and Doina for flute, clarinet, two violins, viola, cello and double bass (2001)

Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955): Rapsodie for two flutes, clarinet and piano (1917)

SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921): Piano Quintet in A minor, Opus 14 (1855)

My favourites were the Honneger and the Saint-Saens.  It may not be a coincidence that these were the two works which included the piano, for which the the Saint-Saens,  characteristically, provided lots of notes and a starring role.  The Beethoven was agreeable, but perhaps a little bit too unremittingly so.

The second half of the next concert is Ludwig (sometimes Louis) Spohr’s Grand Nonet in F.  It is rare to hear any nonets performed. Amazingly, I have already heard this nonet played twice this year by the Sydney Omega Ensemble. Roger Covell describes the nonet as “ample, well-crafted music poised between the influences of Viennese classicism and early romanticism.” He goes on to say: “This amiable and skilful music seeks only to please and has its comfortable share of convinced admirers.” As one of those admirers, I think “amiable and skilful” is, if anything, selling it a bit short. I am very much looking forward to it.

2 Responses to “Australia Ensemble”

  1. Grand nonet « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] I have mentioned before, the Spohr Nonet is one of my favourite works – I have a weakness for underestimated, officially […]

  2. Hamburger Ensemble 2 « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] I had a little laugh when the string quartet came on at the beginning of the concert. There was a whisper behind us and it was true, Irina Morozova has regained a little of the weight she had shed two years ago. […]

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