Hungarian Rhumba

On Sunday to hear the Sydney Omega Ensemble at the Opera House.

The weather was horrible and there was no avoiding a drenching at the last dash from the colonnades of the Toaster building, owing to construction work blocking the usual entrance to the sheltered concourse beneath. On the way I passed bins overflowing with discarded clear-plastic rain ponchos, sold to Sunday revellers foolish enough to have ventured out, perhaps to watch the triathlon which had just about closed the city down earlier that day.

It was my first time to the Utzon Room. I was last there when it was the Reception Hall, accompanying someone for a movement of one of the Strauss horn concerti for a Sydney Eisteddfod section in about 1990. The picture above (pinched from the SOH site) shows what in word-processing terms might be called the landscape layout of the room. I’m sure that back then the hall set up was “portrait” with the performers at the end where the photo has been taken from.

On a sunny day, the view out of the window would be brilliant. That’s what everyone was saying, because on Sunday it wasn’t, though as the light faded there was some charm as various flashing lights assumed prominence.

The program was:

Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante K. 364
Stanhope: Omega Dances
Dohnányi: Sextet in C major Op. 37

The Mozart is for a string sextet (in this case, 2 violins, 2 violas, cello and double bass). The Stanhope, a newly commissioned work, was for the same instrumentation as the Dohnányi: piano quartet plus horn and clarinet or, as Paul Stanhope puts it, string trio plus piano, horn and clarinet. That’s a kind of post-Brahmsian chamber group (thinking here of his clarinet and horn trios as a guide to moving beyond the core piano and string ensembles).

The concert was comfortably but not capaciously attended – I’d say about half were friends and relatives. The ensemble may have had a bigger audience for the free performance of the Dohnányi a month earlier at the Eugene Goossens Hall Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre out at Penrith for ABC Classic FM. (If it was at the EG Hall they would certainly have had. I don’t know what numbers those concerts draw out West.)

I probably sat too close for the Mozart, or else Emily Long was exhibiting a bit of leaderitis – she always seemed to get oppressively assertive, especially above the stave. That is a perennial dilemma for first violins in string chamber ensembles. Generally their part is written to be predominant and the leader always has to be a much stronger player than, for example, any other violins, but it is a tightrope between projecting (and in Mozart this generally means projecting sweetly) and becoming overbearing. As I say, maybe I was disproportionately close to her, so I can’t really judge.

That wasn’t such an issue in the Stanhope and the Dohnányi because the introduction of piano, horn and clarinet changed the balance. Just to be sure, I took the precaution of moving further away for the Dohnányi, and though it wasn’t so much fun from further away, certainly there wasn’t any suggestion of leaderitis, just proper assertiveness, and the balance was fine.

Paul Stanhope was there and gave a short introduction to his piece. After only one hearing I’m afraid all I can say is that it was effective. It seemed to just be getting really going when it stopped.

I was really there for the sake of the Dohnányi. Last year I heard the Australia Ensemble play it. It’s a bit of a rarity and you might wonder why it should come on again so soon. The answer of course is that just as the Australia Ensemble includes clarinetist Catherine McCorkill in its permanent line-up, David Rowden, clarinetist, is the instigator of the Sydney Omega Ensemble. So there always has to be a clarinet piece.

The Dohnányi was written in 1934 and is a kind of cross-over work – mature post-Brahmsian romanticism (the maturity leads to a bit more autumnal discursiveness than JB generally tended to) finishing off with slightly folksy (think Dvorak) and eventually almost poppy jauntiness. These last tendencies emerge in the last two movements, on youtube here. SOE’s performance was a little brisker at the end than that version. The title of this post was what I was thinking about by the end, even though it certainly wasn’t an actual Rhumba.

For some reason, the program, originally advertised for 4pm, was put back to 5pm. That suited me fine. I’m still not a convert to Sunday daytime concerts, but plenty are. Maybe that affected the attendance adversely – tricky for getting back in time to cook dinner and watch a bit of Sunday night telly.

There seems to have been a bit of experimentation by the SOE as to who should be their pianist. As a sometime pianist, I’m naturally interested in this. In such an ensemble, I’d say the pianist has to be, weight for age, of at least the same calibre as the first violinist. This time it was Brenda Jones, on a smallish Yamaha (that’s a bit disappointing of the Opera House). I enjoyed her playing though I thought she put a bit too much figurative inflection in some of what became downwardly cascading swirls in the Dohnányi.

Next concert will feature Simon Tedeschi in a program “Top of the Pops” which David Rowden announced the ensemble will take touring with him for Musica Viva in their CountryWide touring program. I’m not sure if he is really the right match for them and I don’t think he is there as anything but a guest artist. I suppose they need a “name” for this, and he gets separate billing. That’s also why they probably need a poppy program, which they are sufficiently confident in to propose playing twice on May 29 at the SOH:

Kats-Chernin: Eliza’s Aria
Beethoven: Clarinet Trio
Schubert: Trout Quintet

I like the inclusion of the Kats-Chernin. The “Trout” is one for mum (and everyone). No prizes for guessing how the Beethoven gets onto the program.

2 Responses to “Hungarian Rhumba”

  1. ken n Says:

    A thoughtful, comprehensive review M. Thank you. I have managed to miss hearing SOE so far. Unfortunately we will be away on 29 May but must try harder to catch them.
    To me the greatest value in a review (and yes, I know you do not claim to be a critic) is to help me decide what to see and what I can avoid. For that, the personal impressions of someone whose taste I respect is much more useful than something from a music critic.

  2. Nail soup | Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] I last heard them, there has been a something like a 90% turnover in the ensemble’s membership.  This comes a […]

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