On Saturday 14 May to UNSW with P and her son T to hear the Australia Ensemble.

For the second time this year, there was a large flock of corellas roosting in the big gum trees at the front of the John Clancy Auditorium.

The program was:

MILHAUD: Sonata for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano
STRAUSS: Piano Quartet Op. 13
BALL: Three Dreams in Pulse – new work for clarinet and piano (first performance)
MENDELSSOHN: Octet in E flat major Op. 20

The Strauss (Richard) was said to be a Brahmsian work. I suppose compared to where Strauss went afterwards it was, though I didn’t hear all that much Brahms until the third movement and the busy beginning to the finale.  There were unmistakeable signs of the future Strauss starting from the Heldenleben-ish big tune in the first movement and right up to the characteristic (think Till Eulenspiegel, or the boy coming back for the hanky at the end of Der Rosenkavalier) playful curlicues.

The Ball was a commission, originally for Catherine McCorkill, who sadly is no longer billed as part of the ensemble.  The “Pulse” in the title clearly refers to rhythm rather than legumes.  It was given a rousing rendition by David Griffiths, still listed as a mere associate artist.  And, of course (though less rousingly) Ian Munro at the keyboard.

The Mendelssohn is of course a wonder, though not quite the marvel it is often touted to be (on account of his extreme youth when he wrote it) because the version we hear was polished up by him a few years later.  The string members of the ensemble were joined by the Tin Alley Quartet.  The octet is such a well-known work that I found it almost nerve-wracking to witness, especially in the big first movement which really gave Dene Olding a work-out (as does the whole thing really).  I should lighten up.  The second movement (the least well-known) was a relief by comparison.

I have let too much time pass to make any very meaningful comment about the Milhaud.  P is often critical of some wind ensemble music, but I find myself nearly always beguiled by the sheer sound of the wind instruments playing together (or, in this case, with the piano as well).  I think it is because instruments supported by breath are so much like the voice.  The music is almost irrelevant to this.  From memory I liked the first and last movements the most, though the explosive third movement was pretty exciting.

In the last movement, I noticed the oboist, Huw Jones, sticking something up the bell of the instrument when he was playing some low and quiet notes.  A few bars later he took it out and almost surreptitiously stuck it back in his pocket.  I guessed it was some kind of mute – it is difficult to play the oboe low and quiet and it has a propensity to quack a bit.

At interval, I ran into Jones. When I asked him about the mute he pulled it from his pocket where it still was: a packet of Tally-ho cigarette papers.

You often see woodwind players doing something with cigarette papers mid-performance and especially oboists, when they are not (as they also often are) fiddling with their reeds.  Internet “researches” suggest that they are drying the pads.  Some woodwind supply shops actually sell cigarette papers.

Jones told me that there were cloth mutes that people sometimes used but the Tally-ho pack was just the right size.  I’m guessing it is probably also convenient if you are going to have the packet with you anyway on account of the other uses for the papers.

What will oboists do in the not-so-distant day when all smoking is forbidden and smoking paraphernalia are no longer so widely distributed?  It could be a bit like the problem which is already emerging in relation to the million-and-one home uses for newsprint.




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