Archive for the ‘Sydney Omega Ensemble’ Category

Seen and heard

August 8, 2017

More for my benefit than anyone else’s, an update on live performances I have been to recently – well, by now not so recently:

1   SSO, Mozart series, Angel Place, Orli Shaham

I went to hear Orli Shaham with the SSO at Angel Place.  The program was Haydn Midi symphony, Mozart, Piano Concerto No 21 and, as a quasi encore (it is a tradition in this series to end with a mystery piece) the last movement of Mozart’s piano quartet in E flat.

In the Haydn I found myself wondering if the SSO couldn’t afford to be a little less robust in its approach. This seemed more to scale for the next day’s outing at the Concert Hall of the SOH than Angel Place.  As for the Mozart, my memory is now dimmed but I remember thinking Shaham and indeed her colleagues most relaxed in the piano quartet at the end.  Perhaps my reception of the concerto was too much overshadowed by fixed notions from other interpretations.

2    Aphra Behn, The Rover.

With D to this, at the Belvoir/Company B.

D and I hardly ever go to plays.  I was drawn to this by the rarity of Restoration plays in Sydney’s theatrical bill of fare and Aphra Behn’s reputation as a kind of Germaine Greer special topic.  Victor has rightly remarked on the trio of exceedingly skinny-legged (male) actors.  One of these is Toby Schmitz, who featured prominently in the publicity.  Is it him or just the characters he plays that I find just a bit irritating?  He has a line in boyish charm which somehow misses me.  It might be (to coin a phrase I first heard applied to Teddy Tahu-Rhodes) a “chook magnet” thing.

We were promised a “rollicking” show.  Some of this felt a bit forced as the actors ran around madly to convey the sense of Naples at carnival time.  Moments when the actors broke through the fourth wall and played against the work were evidently loved by others more than by me.

I could have done with a bit less physical comedy, especially when this delayed the plot, and more verbal thrust and parry (there was also a bit of sword stuff).  I had a look at the script later on the internet.  There is probably a reason why we don’t see much restoration comedy these days.  It would take an effort to bring that script alive for a modern audience – but in this case I felt a bit of a lowest common denominator approach was taken.  Since I first wrote this I have found that Kevin Jackson expresses a similar view much more cogently than I can.

I was a bit disappointed in it but I did still enjoy it.  Maybe my expectations were too high.   D, did not share my disappointment.  We did still both enjoy it and I’m glad I went.

3.  SSO, Robertson, Graham, Mahler 3.

I heard this once live and then in the car on the way to a funeral at noon on the following Saturday.  In the live performance I thought Robertson’s approach to the first movement was a bit “cool” and “objective;” listening to the broadcast I appreciated how clear it all was.  I wonder if it is actually something about his rather brisk manner on the podium which created that impression.  Whatever, any such impression was not sustained into the impassioned last movement.

Susan Graham was great.  For the bimm bamms and associated Wunderhorn song the choirs sang without scores – not such a feat for the Sydney Children’s Choir (ratio of boys to girls about 1:3) maybe but assisting an pleasingly bright sound from the Ladies (or are they Women now? – that’s what the ABC announcer called them afterwards) of the Sydney Philharmonia.

The posthorn solo was less offstage than usual.  The mystery was only solved when Paul Goodchild emerged for his bow at the end in the organ loft – he must have been hiding round the corner and taking direction from the organist’s video screen.

4.   Omega Ensemble – Schubert “Trout” Quintet and Octet

This too was an event for which I nursed high expectations [/hopes?] which weren’t quite met [/fulfilled].  Both are, as one says if put on the spot, “great works.”  The shadow of well-known recordings and impactful live performances (and the first exposure is always impactful even if in retrospect not so great) hangs over any live encounter. That must be for true even though I am very much not a “record-head” who judges everything against particular recordings with which I am familiar.

In the “Trout” I think the cellist could profitably have swapped places with the bassist and sat in the bow of the piano facing the audience directly.

I always suspect that the issue for the OE is that, as an ad hoc ensemble, they have less chance (than a more permanent ensemble) of things gelling as a result of frequent experiences of playing together.  It is hard in those conditions to obtain an optimal freedom and warmth of expression.  The concert was well attended and warmly received.  I enjoyed both, the octet more than the “Trout.”

I’ll have a chance to hear another Octet in a week or so when the Australia Ensemble plays it on the 19th.  Meanwhile, despite my lukewarm words above, I seem to have been stirred to a bit of a Schubert craze and am stumbling through D568.  There is something about Schubert that for me really hits the spot.


September 20, 2015

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?

Nail soup

June 2, 2013

Last night to hear the Sydney Omega Ensemble, playing with Simon Tedeschi at the City Recital Hall.

Since I last heard them, there has been a something like a 90% turnover in the ensemble’s membership.  This comes a close second to the notorious switcheroo a few years ago in the “personnel” of the Australian String Quartet, which overnight went from one set of players to a totally different set previously known as the Tankstream Quartet.

You might thing that what that revealed was that the ASQ was not so much an ensemble as a business name – it was whatever group the University of Adelaide might seek to employ and publicise under that name.

Likewise, the SOE has now morphed from the ensemble founded in 2005 when clarinetist David Rowden and “10 other young musicians sought to redefine Sydney’s classical chamber music landscape.”  “Listed on the Australian Government’s Register of Cultural Organisations maintained under Subdivision 3-B of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997″ it is now whoever the management (and in particular, I surmise, its artistic director, clarinetist David Rowden, the one constant member) chooses to engage.

This means it is no longer what it was, which was a bunch of roughly co-eval musicians from Sydney, and now is a broader mix of some young and some older musicians about town.  Along the way it seems also to have become more blokey.

There was possibly some angst involved in this transition, and in a way I feel something has been lost, even if something has been gained in its place.

Saturday’s program was:

Françaix: Quartet for Winds “Quatuor à vents”

Spohr: Septet for Flute, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, Violin, Cello and Piano in A minor, Op. 147

Strauss: Capriccio, Op. 85

Shostakovich: Quintet for Piano and Strings in G minor, Op. 57
and the line-up was:
Simon Tedeschi (piano) [he gets his own billing as a guest star], Huy-Nguyen Bui (violin), Airena Nakamura (violin), Tobias Breider (viola), Ewan Foster (viola), Teije Hylkema (cello), Timothy Nankervis (cello), Lisa Osmialowksi (flute), David Papp (oboe), David Rowden (clarinet), Andrew Barnes (bassoon)  and Michael Dixon (horn).
The program was $5 and for that I think we might have been told a bit more about the individual musicians.
It was not your typical chamber-music public.  For one thing, it was inclined to clap between movements, but only if the movement just finished was fast or lively.  Things settled down in the second half.
The Françaix was amiable and pleasant.
What I’d come for was the Spohr.
Spohr’s apparently aesthetically undemanding parameters were such that his music was adopted by WS Gilbert as the badge of the common-place young man that Reginald Bunthorne would become once he abandoned his Oscar-Wilde aestheticism for more common place musical fare “interwoven / With Spohr and Beethoven, / At classical Monday Pops.”
In some ways Spohr falls between the cracks of musical history and it does not always seem to be a straightorward exercise to bring his style back to life.  As a result, there is a risk that you end up thinking “is this all there is?”
In this case, this started with a strangely offhand opening led by H-N Bui in admittedly not a very forward register of the violin.  At first I reproached him for this and I still think he took too literally the piano marking in the score – unless it was my seat that was the problem.  Home afterwards I found a few youtube exemplars and think that what was needed was a bit more musical tension in the accompaniment and (sorry to say) a lighter (not necessarily always softer) approach from the piano.
In the slow movement (a Larghetto pastorale), the tempo never really seemed to settle and it kept threatening to go faster than Michael Dixon started it off.
By the third movement the affekt was clearer and in one of the trios David Rowden got to do some quite nice clarinet yodelling. The last movement was cheerful but fairly musically inconsequential.
Still, I’m glad I heard it.  What would be really good, though, is if they could play it again.  It seems a shame that such a rarely assembled piece and ensemble should be just for the once. I’m sure it would get better.
The second half was given over to the strings.  I’ve exhausted myself with thinking about the Spohr so won’t really offer an opinion about that.
On a Saturday night, when you leave the City Recital Hall, you come straight out into the special hell of the queue to get into the bar “Ivy.”  Bouncers abound and the air is pregnant with their special kind of menace.  Why people would want to queue up to get into a club where the bouncers have detained a patron and beaten him beats me.  It made me treasure the winsome ending of the Shostakovich quintet all the more, even as Ivy’s doof-doof rent the air.
The city was otherwise full of revellers for the “Vivid” festival.
I took the train home.

Hungarian Rhumba

April 15, 2011

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.

Good living

February 28, 2010

My blogging rate is right down. Is the craze subsiding? Here, for at least journalistic (ie, as in a diary) reasons are some recent events in my life.

I saw Opera Australia’s Manon twice (and the last two acts one more time from the foyer after the Mahler 1). I went the second time (I did post about the first) to defend the production against its detractors, but in fact I ended up realising that, so far as the production was concerned, I largely concurred with most of what Peter McCallum had said. It was the music I loved. In my experience, most productions directed by Stuart Maunder are a bit boring, and Manon ultimately confirmed this.

At the Enmore Theatre I saw The Dirty Three supported by the Laughing Clowns. This was part of the Festival of Sydney. It was a bit left of my usual concert-going field, but I did enjoy it. The Dirty Three is a kind of rock equivalent of a piano trio – drums, guitar and violin. The focus of the performance is the violinist, who cuts the most extraordinary figure as he plays, back to the audience, facing the drummer with whom he spends most of his time interacting, though in fact the guitarist, who stands rather out of the limelight at the side of the stage, is also essential if less conspicuously so. They played for over an hour and a half but it didn’t feel long at all.

I went to the SSO’s Mahler 1 and Mahler 8 concerts on consecutive Saturdays. It’s great to hear Mahler 8 but I’m with Wanderer in taking more home from the Mahler 1 concert than the Mahler 8. Perhaps it is my fault for not preparing enough for the Mahler 8 (my turntable is out of action), but there is simply so much going on in that work that it is almost impossible to absorb it all, and I was too self-conscious of feeling “omg, I’m hearing the Mahler 8!” to be able really to take it in. Of the soloists, I liked Simon O’Neill the most, though it was hard to take him seriously, even in a concert work, as “Dr Marianus” when at every turn I was reminded of his insouciantly swaggering Sergei in last year’s Lady Macbeth of Mstensk

Lured by a personal connection, I went to hear the Sydney Omega Ensemble playing at the Delmar Gallery at Trinity Grammar in Summer Hill. The occasion was an apparently annual concert in connexion with a touring show of entries to the Blake Prize for Religious Art. There were readings of Blake poems.

This was an odd event. The Delmar Gallery is a fundamentally unsuitable venue for any acoustic performances unless the weather is sufficiently temperate to do without its extremely noisy air conditioning. If the exhibition is anything to go by, religious art is, in this day and age, as problematic term as military music or, to borrow a riff from Shirley Hazzard in A Transit of Venus, Bankers Trust.

I’ve also been to see 6 films at Queerscreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival. Attendances seemed down this year, though this may in part be because I avoid the crowd pleasers which are generally films about rent boys or porn stars. I shall try to post separately about this festival.

Finally, I’m not much of a diner out, but I have been to two restaurants recently which are a cut above my usual fare.

The Friday before last, a former colleague, PG, visiting from Brisbane with K, his new-to-me boyfriend of a year, suggested we meet for dinner at East Sydney’s Universal Restaurant. PG is a bit of a reader of lifestyle magazines of a certain up-market type. When I first met him, just a decade ago, it was Wallpaper*, but apparently that is now quite passé. That’s a long way round of trying to explain why PG had more definite and more glamorous ideas than I as to where we should dine in Sydney, even though I am the one who lives here.

When, running late after rushing home for a shower and fresh clothes after a long day in Manly Local Court, I told him that I had left my wallet and money at the office, he gaily announced that dinner would be his treat.

The restaurant’s concept is that you should have about 3 approximately entree-sized courses, as well as (should you choose) pre-dinner drinks and dessert and coffee. At about $25-27 per course and with commensurate liquor prices, this turned out to be a more generous gesture on his part than he had realised when he first made it.

The remarkable aspect of the evening was the leisurely pace at which the food was served: we had booked for 8.30; I got there at about 8.45; the third course cannot have been served until after 11 and it was almost midnight before we were finished. As I’m a late diner anyway, this didn’t concern me, though I think PG and K, who are earlier risers and had Sydney bars to check out afterwards, might have wished things to move along a little more briskly.

I should add in fairness to the restaurant that we were the very last to leave, and that this leisurely service was apparently out of consideration to us or respect for the concept of the restaurant rather than because of any kitchen tardiness. Indeed, maybe it was my fault: I talked too much. I had had such a triumph at Manly , and my opposing counsel [small world] was even known to PG from the distant city where PG and I had worked together almost a decade ago.

The Friday just passed [past?], I went to Azuma, in the Chifley Centre in town, for my very old friend Mk’s fiftieth birthday. Once again, this was a glimpse of a life I do not really lead – a private room, and conversation which included references to an apartment (rented, though annually) in Italy, rare wines (including one procured from the up-market wine shop in Ultimo by selling another rare wine to them which they sought for another customer), going to “the farm” and (and hence the choice of restaurant) skiing in Japan.

Judging at least by the restaurant, this sort of thing is a taste I could definitely acquire, were it not that I could just about get a B-reserve seat at the opera for about the same amount (I don’t know for sure because although we covered the birthday boy between us I suspect the person who collected from us understated the true tariff). It is vulgar of me to be concerned about such matters, I know.

The picture at the head of this post is of one of the courses on the degustation menu which we had. The picture at the foot is of the sweets.

Sydney Omega Ensemble

November 24, 2009

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.

Sydney Omega Ensemble – Paddington Uniting Church

December 9, 2007

This afternoon D and I went to hear the Sydney Omega Ensemble.

The program was:

MAURICE RAVEL Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, string quartet and harp
CHRISTOPHER GORDON Chamber Symphony: Freefall
(a new work commissioned for SOE by Ars Musica Australis)

The chairman of the Ensemble gave me these tickets after I complained to him at the drinks function after the last concert about the poster outside Angel Place which misstated the start time and misled me so that I missed the first half. In truth, it is quite likely I would have gone anyway – except that, because we are going to Keating! on Tuesday night, I was obliged to accept tickets for, in my opinion, the less favourable of the two venues.

On Tuesday night, the concert is repeated at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney. Earlier this year I went to both venues when they played the Spohr Nonet. The Independent Theatre was an incomparably better venue. Recently it has been substantially restored. It has a very favourable acoustic and raked seating which is only a little odd because the seating is still old-fashioned-theatrical, which has a semiotic difference from contemporary-concert-hall.

Unfortunately, it sounds as though the Ensemble won’t be persisting with the Independent next year simply because it hasn’t been a box office success. This is exacerbated in the Ensemble’s eyes, I am sure, by the price of the venue – the Paddington Uniting Church, by comparison, must be comparatively practically free to them, or so the ambience suggests. Given the size of the public for those concerts, the much healthier attendance at their Angel Place concert (the one I missed the first half of, as if I shouldn’t be letting go of that!) was very impressive. I don’t know how much that owed to their guest artist, clarinetist (and son of the conductor) Dmitri Ashkenazy.

As when I last attended at Paddington, the afternoon was hot, and the musicians’ working conditions were ameliorated by blower fans which, however acceptable for putting a breeze up a cassock or surplice on a muggy day, are not an acceptable form of professional concert environment.  Perhaps this is why the public which was attracted was so pathetic – perhaps 40-60 people at most, of whom a good 15-20 were probably on comps of one sort or other (including, in this case, us).  How is this sustainable for a concert with 11 or 12 performers?

There were a few substitutions for the usual line-up, and I’m not so sure that all of them weren’t improvements.  I assume the regular pianist, Katie Golla is at present in Melbourne on account of her day job with Opera Australia.  Her replacement, Clemens Leske Jnr, is an altogether higher class of pianist.  He represents more the level of pianist which such a group requires: the pianist doesn’t need just to be the equal of the others (as I think Katie to be) but, because of the role the pianist plays, equal of 2 or 3 of the others if not all of the others put together. 

It’s a pity the house was so poor, because the ensemble’s standard of performance deserves more notice, and the program was excellent.  The Ravel is a luscious work designed to exhibit the virtues of the pedal harp over a chromatic rival; the Nielsen is a classic with a particularly charming minuet and a poised set of variations on a theme at the end.  The Gordon was a premiere: it was strongest in its hectic fast bits, which owed something to chugalug minimalism for the way in which it rang the changes on repeated patterns; bravely, it ended with a solo for the viola.  At first I was thinking, “No, No! Don’t risk it! Don’t give the big moment to the viola! ” but in the end it somehow worked, even if as something of a deliberate anti-climax (or do I mean post climax in a sighing kind of way?).

 And afterwards there was wine and light refreshments – very civilized and especially so since, in this case, free!

Brentano Quartet

November 22, 2007

Tonight to Angel Place to hear the Brentano Quartet play for Musica Viva.

I was given this evenings tickets by Mary Jo Capps, the general manager of MV, after I complained (reasonably politely) about the intrusive video promo for next year’s season at the Stephen Hough recital which I wrote about previously.

You’ve got to say this about Ms Capps, she is good at her job.  I was also given tickets for interval drinks in the hospitality suite, and gave one of these to an acquaintance whom I ran into before the concert.  He was slow to arrive and I went downstairs, thinking he would be outside having a smoke.  When I returned, I found she had come up to him, asked if he was waiting for someone, and on being told it was [my given name] she said “Oh! [my full name].”  When I returned, she came up to us and we had a further brief chat.  But she had already checked me out from afar because she knew which seat I was sitting in.

The program was:

4 Monteverdi Madrigals, selected and transcribed by Mark Steinberg 

Joseph HAYDN
String Quartet in G major, op 64 no 4

String Quartet (2006) (premiere: commissioned by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in E flat major, op 127

The program note said of the Haydn that “the G major String Quartet is perhaps less well known than its stable-mate, the ‘Lark,'” but funnily enough it didn’t feel so to me, because I heard it not 2 weeks earlier when I had been given (they were an unwanted prize(!)) tickets to the Australian String Quartet, which played the very same quartet in the very same hall. The Brentano’s account was more free and virtuosic, but in some ways the more classical approach by the ASQ was, I suspect, more “authentic” as well as more sunnily good-humoured in the manner we are accustomed to hear Haydn.

I enjoyed the Ross Edwards, and it was nice to see Ann Boyd and Peter Sculthorpe (Edwards’ one time colleagues from the University of Sydney former music department where I have studied from time to time) turning up in support.  It finished with one of his signature Maninyas.

Unfortunately, I was rather distracted by my neighbour, who is one of those people who think that the time to read the program is when the music is being played. I just cannot understand this. Would you bring a book and read it, or a newspaper? (I know some people do, but it is pretty rude.)  The time the music is being played is the time to listen to the music, and if you are flicking through the program you are selling yourself short, so far as I am concerned, and also distracting me! I really wanted to slap him as he reached for the program from his partner for the nth time during the encore.

Across the aisle from me, a blonde girl of the worst sort chose the slow movement of the Ross Edwards to make herself noisily comfortable on her boyfriend’s shoulder for a snooze, and decided during the encore that it was time to get her hair-tie out of her purse, tie up her hair and put on her shoes. I have to learn to be more tolerant, I know.

The Beethoven took up the whole of the second half and was very much the major work. When you are young, you learn about the Beethoven late quartets as part of the scheme of Beethoven’s three periods so you can answer the general knowledge questions in exams if you are playing a Beethoven sonata, much as you learn about Bach’s St Matthew Passion and his cantatas in association with the Prelude and Fugue which you are playing. It’s all a bit of a formula: you don’t necessarily listen to these works. I have since got to know the Bach works reasonably well, but I am still something of a neophyte when it comes to the Beethoven late quartets. I don’t think I had heard this one through before, and almost certainly not live. Like other late Beethoven works (eg, the ninth symphony or the late piano sonatas) it was an enormous and extraordinary work which seemed to encompass a musical universe. On this occasion, it was the third movement (the Scherzo) which made the deepest impact: I was still hearing it in my mind as they were playing the last movement.

I was a bit surprised that the attendance wasn’t better: tickets were only sold for the stalls and the first gallery, and these were by no means full.  So I suppose I have to be a bit more forgiving of MV for their promotional antics – quite apart from having taken the free tickets in propitiation for my earlier complaint.

The concert season is winding down for the year.  Outside in Martin Place, the Christmas tree went up tonight.  I have only one more SSO concert to go to and one more concert at Angel Place.  Apart from that, I also have another pair of free tickets, because a few weeks ago, when I went to hear the Sydney Omega Ensemble, I was misled by of all things a poster outside Angel Place as to the correct starting time, and consequently missed the first half.  So I am going again to hear them on Sunday 9 December at Paddington Town Hall.  It seems that I am learning that it pays to complain.

Grand nonet

August 12, 2007

Tonight I went to hear/see the Australia Ensemble. The program was:

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Piano Trio in E flat, Opus 70 No 2 (1808)

György LIGETI (1923-2006): Ten Pieces for wind quintet (1968)

Luwig SPOHR (1784-1859): Nonet in F for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass (1813)

The Beethoven trio was the less well-known of two which make up his Opus 70 (the other is the “Ghost” Trio which probably ranks only second to the “Archduke” amongst Beethoven’s trios so far as repute or renown are concerned). There was some amusement just before the players started when the cellist, Julian Smiles, announced a “wardrobe malfunction” and removed his cummerbund – “It was going to come off anyway.”

I sit in the fourth row from the front. It was a genially intimate performance, though in the third movement I felt that Ian Munro, the pianist, was playing from a slightly more extroverted song-sheet than the violinist, Dimity Hall.  The piece felt oddly Schubertian: I’m thinking in particular of some rather delicate arpeggiations in the piano’s upper register set off against the theme in the third movement, though clearly Beethoven thought of this first.

The Ligeti was more challenging, despite the helpful instruction by Roger Covell in his program note that, contrary to popular misconception, the first rather than the second syllable of his name bears the stress. Most of the pieces are quite short; the ninth had a particularly striking effect with the clarinet, oboe and piccolo all playing piercingly loud and high (quite a few of the audience shielded their ears) and a mysterious lower harmonic which emerged from somewhere yet also from nowhere. It received only a lukewarm reception. I think it was unwise for Paul Stanhope (who conducted) to allow the atmosphere to be broken between movements.

As I have mentioned before, the Spohr Nonet is one of my favourite works – I have a weakness for underestimated, officially second-rate or second-tier works or composers (as a child I had an Offenbach craze, not to mention a taste for Gilbert and Sullivan).  Compared to the performances of this work I heard earlier this year by the Sydney Omega Ensemble, it was a polished performance, but not always as interesting. 

The violin carries the lion’s share of the musical material.  Whilst Dene Olding was a class above Emily Long, the Omega Ensemble’s violinist, I had hoped for more than he gave. At times he tended to skate over the surface of the elaborate figuration where a more scrupulously accurate account would have been more sparkling. 

So for me it was a case of high expectations not quite met.  Sorry to say that.  Still, I enjoyed it, as did P, who lacked my burden of anticipation.  We both agreed that the medium-warm applause at the end was less than the performance deserved.  Perhaps that is the fate of amiable music.

Australia Ensemble

May 20, 2007

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.