Sydney Omega Ensemble

On Sunday afternoon to a concert by the Sydney Omega Ensemble at the Conservatorium.

I was invited to go by a friend who has taken it upon himself to assist with the management of the group. I was a bit embarrassed when he actually paid for my ticket in front of me – if I was going to go, I wouldn’t really have grudged the admission price – but hell, a free ticket was the deal and when you’ve been a lawyer for a while you get rather a hard heart for sticking to the deal, whatever it is.

The program was:

MATTHEW HINDSON New work for solo Bassett Clarinet (Funeral Windows was the title, I think: it was a kind of riff on the Dies Irae)
SMETANA String Quartet From my life
WEBER Clarinet Quintet

The ensemble’s web site states:

Eleven young, vibrant performers with a wealth of enthusiasm and musical skill, together formed the Sydney Omega Ensemble at the end of 2005.

Only three of that eleven featured in Sunday’s concert, the remaining two (violinists making up the string quartet) were “guest artists,” and therein lies a bit of a problem.

If you go to the ensemble’s website you’ll see that its basic programming principle is that you can have anything you want, so long as it has a clarinet in it [that’s an allusion to Henry Ford, in case you didn’t notice]. This is because the ensemble’s “artistic director” and (it is fair to assume) instigator is its clarinetist, David Rowden.

The founding members of the ensemble in 2005 were all young musicians on the cusp of a professional career. Since then, some of them have gained salaried toeholds in the musical establishment; others haven’t. The appearance of “guest” violinists on this program (not a one-off appearance: they were “guests” at the ensemble’s previous concert) is a result of the original violinists being otherwise engaged.

Obviously, people are going to move on, and the membership of a group cannot remain static. Even with a stable membership, it must be a nightmare getting everyone together, not only for the performances, but also for rehearsals. I was told that there had been three rehearsals for this concert: that wasn’t really enough for the Smetana – our expectations about string quartets are based on ensembles that play together for a sustained period to develop the necessary rapport and, in the case of touring quartets, repeat the same program many times. In the case of the Weber quintet (a terrific work: I’ve been humming the catchy minuet ever since), this didn’t matter so much, as David Rowden was able to provide the focus as clarinetist in what is essentially a brilliant concertante role.

I want to hear chamber music live. The possibility of this, however, depends on ensembles being able to maintain their existence and, in particular, sufficient other people coming together to help support them. That’s an issue for all musicians (audience = money = sustainable existence) and it’s a kind of Darwinian struggle which is hardly unique to the Sydney Omega Ensemble, which must have been disappointed and probably discouraged by the pathetically small audience that turned up on this occasion. It’s also an issue for those, like me, who want musicians to keep playing and practising and rehearsing and performing so we can hear what they have to play.

The horrible fact is that music, like art (I was thinking of visual arts but the argument holds more generally than that), or sport (considered as performance), is an enormous Ponzi or pyramid scheme of tuition and youthful aspiration and endeavour where only a minority will ever be left playing or working in the field. In each case, there is something which people actually love to do, but in order to be able to do it well they need to attract the support of others, and the regard of others is essential to any performative aspect. The availability of recorded music in the twentieth century has brought a wider range of music to everybody, but at the same time it has almost certainly reduced the prospects of musicians in general by concentrating the opportunities on those at the top of the tree whose performances can then be mass-distributed. Live performances need some institutional focus (venue/ensemble or performers/promoter) which will generate actual attendances in the face of this abundance and ubiquity of recorded product.

How this happens and how audiences can be built and maintained is very much a case-by-case thing. Just as it is an achievement for anyone to make their living from music, even more it is an achievement for an audience to be developed. Even established institutions, like Opera Australia or the SSO, can never rest on their laurels. (Artistic management is like the Red Queen’s race in Alice: you have to run just to keep still. Not that this is so different from life in general – I’m lapsing into truisms here.)

Everyone always has plenty of suggestions as to how audiences can be built up and maintained in a particular case. I have my own ideas about the SOE, but I don’t think it would be fair for me to offer commentary from the sideline [yuck! sporting metaphor!] here. They do play well. If they can manage it, there is room for their continued existence, particularly in offering performances by mixed ensembles of works which otherwise only get occasional exposure. They have plans for next year which they can’t announce officially until everything is teed up with the venue. They’re not giving up yet, and I say: good on them.

Just in case the gloomy circularity of spiralling truisms in this post gets you down as much as it is getting me down, I just want to make clear that I enjoyed the concert (that includes the Smetana) and it would have been well worth the asked-for $35 if I hadn’t been given a free (to me) ticket.

One Response to “Sydney Omega Ensemble”

  1. David Rowden Says:

    Details of our 2010 series are up on our website now! This program is performed this Thursday at Angel Place as part of their lunchtime series also. D

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