On Thursday with my colleague, J, to Angel Place for the Omega Ensemble’s concert, titled (all concerts have a title these days) “Chamber to Charleston.”

The originally advertised program was:

Ravel, Introduction and Allegro for harp, string quartet flute and clarinet
Hummel, Septet in D minor
Saint-Saens, Septet
Martinů, La Revue de Cuisine.

I was particularly looking forward to the Hummel and the Saint-Saens. They’d obviously been included to feature the guest artist, Daniel de Borah (as Daniel Hill he was a prizewinner in SIPCA in 2004, amongst other things).

On 3 September the Omega Ensemble announced that Daniel de Borah was unavailable for “unforeseen circumstances.” More like undisclosed circumstances. According to his website he was still playing a recital at Orange on Saturday the 19th.

The same thing happened to the Omega Ensemble in July, when soprano Jane Sheldon, who was to sing again a work by Paul Stanhope that she had premiered, as well as feature as vocal soloist in two others (one of which was also a premiere) fell ill. Omega were lucky to get Lee Abrahmsen to step in at very short notice indeed. She also had to prepare the program for a regional NSW tour immediately after. Abrahamsen’s been asked back for next year so it obviously worked out well.

To lose one guest artist is unfortunate. To lose two guest artists is….more unfortunate.

Actually, there were quite a few changes from the line-up as advertised in the season brochure.

De Borah’s replacement was announced as Maria Raspopova, the ensemble’s “in-house” pianist (in more ways than one because she is married to clarinettist and artistic director David Rowden). That was a lot of notes to learn on such short notice.

On 13 September Omega announced that the Hummel was to be replaced by the Mozart clarinet quintet featuring David Rowden on basset clarinet. I wonder how far they got before they decided on the change?

I missed that announcement so it was only when I arrived at the concert that I learnt the Hummel was OFF. That was a disappointment and would have been a very big one had I paid for my ticket, but in truth not such a surprise.

The program was also slightly rearranged, swapping the order of last two pieces.

The Ravel is a demonstration piece for the Chromatic harp – I heard it earlier this year in a hard-to-beat (probably because I was so close up and totally immersed in harp) performance by Alice Giles with the Australia Ensemble. Sitting further away I didn’t get quite the same buzz but it is still a delicious piece.

While the stage was being set for the Mozart, David Rowden came on and gave a little explanation of the deeper range of the basset clarinet which meant if your pitch memory perception was good enough you could pick up when the extra notes not playable by the ordinary clarinet in A came into play – this mostly meant dips down to the bottom (concert) A an octave and a bit below middle C.

It’s pretty amazing to think that clarinettists buy a basset clarinet basically just to play two pieces: the Mozart clarinet quintet and the Mozart clarinet concerto.

Then again, they are pretty prominent pieces in the instrument’s repertoire.

There is probably more ensemble music for the basset horn than the basset clarinet.

The Mozart clarinet quintet is of course a great work but in a way it suffers from overfamiliarity – a kind of clarinet equivalent to the first movement of the Moonlight sonata – so I found it hard to get really worked up about it. By the third and fourth movements either I or the ensemble or possibly both had settled and of course I enjoyed it.

In the slow[ish] movement first violin Rebecca Chan wielded the biggest violin mute I have ever seen. Maybe that just shows that notwithstanding my oft-stated affection for muted strings, I haven’t been paying attention to other violinists’ mutes, or else I have led a very sheltered life.

The Martinů is a suite based on a ballet with a scenario which surely owes just a little to the L’Enfant et les Sortileges cup and saucer foxtrot – it’s a love triangle between pot and lid and stirring stick with a distraction towards the dishcloth before pot and lid are reunited. Like the Ravel, it includes some jazzy numbers and was the source of the “Charleston” in the program title. Apparently this was Martinů’s breakthrough work, and the beginning of his jazz phase (he moved on from that in the thirties).

This was a lively performance. I have a soft spot for Martinů. There was even just a touch of Martinů’s trademark sewing-machinish vamp-to-measure pattern writing towards the end of the prologue which always makes me laugh just a bit because he seems to be composing by numbers. He was pretty prolific.

This left the Saint-Saens as the really meaty piece, though, being Saint-Saens, not too meaty. It’s written for an unusual combination – string quartet plus double bass, piano and trumpet. There is an inherent balance challenge for the trumpet, although its interventions are limited and in some places this is solved by keeping it soulful.

There is an accompaniment figure which first turns up in the first movement:

Saent Saens Septet 1 piano at letter B

That is then taken up immediately after by the strings, where there is a clearer indication of how it is to be played:

Saint Saens septet letter B continued

The same figure returns at the beginning of the slow, third movement, the Intermede, where it accompanies a cello theme at first:

Intermede 1 -
Intermede 2

I don’t think the pianist’s approach to this was quite right on the night. Once again, admittedly in a more emphatic moment, the guide is given by the string articulation:

Intermede letter C

It’s a small point, and I think it resolved itself by the end of the Intermede.

The score is printed with metronome marks at the start of each movement. Maybe the ensemble was adhering to them, but if so I think they could have cut themselves a bit of slack in the last movement, which started off as a gavotte and is marked Allegro ma non troppo.

Still, I really enjoyed it and the whole Saint-Saens, though it made me regret all the more the missed opportunity to hear the Hummel.

Not that I could complain, as the person who gave me my ticket pointed out: beggars can’t be choosers. Well, that’s not quite true: even beggars could choose to stay at home.

I would not have done that. But I am a bit concerned that the Ensemble does not seem to be drawing the sort of house (and in particular paying public other than its quite numerous and admirably generous sponsors) that its programming (especially if the Hummel were still in) deserves. Is this because, for a local and still (even after 10 years) “junior” ensemble, $69 for A Reserve and $89 for Premium tickets (concessions $10 less and $29 for under 30s) is more than the market can bear? What can be done about this?

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