Sydney Opera House, Utzon Room: 30 October 2011
La Cheminée du Roi René
Wind Quintet in G minor
The Omega Quintet
Wind Octet, opus 216
The Sydney Omega Ensemble
David Rowden – clarinet
Emma Sholl – flute
Shefali Pryor – oboe
Ben Hoadley – bassoon
Euan Harvey – horn
Rowena Watts – clarinet
Robert Llewellyn – bassoon
Francesco Lo Sordo – horn
In the interstices of the Sydney Opera House, between the Opera Theatre, the famous steps up to the podium and the stage door loading dock, is the Utzon Room looking out to the east over Sydney Harbour. Jørn Utzon redesigned the former “reception room” with a mind for its use for chamber music and recitals (he also redesigned the Western Colonnade to welcome theatre goers into the playhouse theater, though unfortunately not the Opera Theatre itself). The Utzon Room magically feels at once like a natural sandstone cave and a modernist version of an English drawing room. It is cozy, long relative to its depth and ceiling height (though not at all cramped being about 3 meters high) with plate glass windows about the height of a person stretching the length of the room facing east, looking across Wahganmuggalee (Farm Cove) with the Botanic Gardens, the sandstone ledges by Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the industrial iron architecture of Garden Island navy base behind. Opposite the windows, along the other length stretches Jørn Utzon’s tapestry Tribute to CPE Bach, its islands of clear and vivid secondary colors complement the pale gray cement ceiling beams which hold up the Opera House above. These beams run the length of the roof, sloping at the end right to the floor, supporting the outside steps, gradually tapering and changing shape as they do from decahedral to rectangular. The musicians stand in front of the window, facing the tapestry which no doubt has a strong favorable effect on the acoustics. Thus the room, also seeming, like a sandstone cave, much older than it really is, has more than its fair share of atmosphere and gravitas, especially for a Sydney concert hall, and could risk overshadowing its musicians in a way, for example, the City Recital Hall at Angel Place could not. The acoustics are very clean and balanced across the spectrum, contributing to the clean, lucid, rounded sound of the ensemble and although the view of the Harbour shows constant maritime activity, no noise gets through the windows, even when an enormous cruise ship floated by (albeit under tug) or one of the hooning speedboats which give joy rides to tourists.
The Sydney Omega Ensemble, founded in 2005, is one of the groups that plays the Utzon Room. They are a chamber group, also including string players for other occasions, made up of associate principles from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and others, mostly younger musicians in their 20s and 30s. The acoustics of the room were particularly favorable for Milhaud’s pseudo-medieval La Cheminée du Roi René (based on his score for a section of the film Cavalcade d’Amour) bringing out its clear and open, innocent quality of sound, each instrument could be heard very clearly. The Omega Ensemble played the opening movements Cortège and Aubade very gently and cleanly always stepping along for the former, for the latter taking a bit more time to dwell on the more beautiful chords, recalling generally throughout the concert the human warmth and softness of an old Baroque organ. They also played with wit and jollity, picking up these qualities from the music’s later movements, as well as in the vivaces of the Taffanel and Reinecke pieces.
Taffanel, though known also as the father of modern flute virtuosity, gives interesting parts to the oboe and clarinet in his quintet. The piece also has much pathos in its dramatic, Mozartean harmonic progression. Flautist Emma Sholl and oboist Shefali Pryor both must play a certain difficult fast passage which repeats later in the piece and they did well to play it so clearly and with thoughtful phrasing. Shefali Pryor also colored the timbre of her instrument in an interesting and way, at times blending with the bassoon and clarinet adding subtly to the collective tone color, at others standing standing out more sharply, giving her voice’s melody a clear outline. The group played the more ‘tragic’ parts of the piece with feeling and the more comic parts with enthusiasm, even glee, but they could go farther, feeling more deeply into the soul of the piece as a whole, deepening their interpretation and the individuality of their parts, perhaps experimenting with the ensemble colors. They did show themselves capable of this by their fine and precise control over their combined voices ‘ equilibrium and the clean acoustics of the room makes any color possible.
The Omega Ensemble put together quite an adventurous program of all wind music, also including the less well known Reinecke. They also seem to play newly commissioned Australian pieces in many of their concerts. Daniel McCallum is a young Australian composer, still studying in fact, who wrote his Omega Quintet on a recent trip to Poland. The piece is sometimes tonal, often less so, and a motif round in shape gets passed among the instruments, reflecting the rather ambiguous mix of solid sounds and brief pieces of folk-sounding song and dance.
The octet to finish the concert confirmed the Utzon Room is not too small to take the larger sound: even with the audience only a few rows deep directly in front of the musicians, it was never painfully loud, but could be quite forceful at its loudest. Reinecke is a worthy composer who deserves more air time, the octet being very carefully made of four movements with varying mood but tightly bound together as a whole work of art. The ensemble as in the other pieces played with precision so that each instrument could be picked out readily but they also combined with their rich, sunny, beautiful, mellifluous collective tone. They also seem to have fun playing, which is of course important, especially with the humor of the faster movements and final passages of this octet. They could, given this sense of precision, and moreover of detail, experiment a bit more with the possibilities of the Utzon Room and their range of color, perhaps taking some risks — the bassoons and horns, for example, rarely growl, even when the main theme moves to them they are rather reserved. Their interpretational judgement certainly seems to be sound.
Although their last concert for the 2011 season, the Omega Ensemble plans an expanded season in 2012 bringing them back to the Utzon Room and the City Recital Hall at Angel Place and the Blue Mountains as well as the Art Gallery of NSW, with some varied and interesting music in their programs, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, new commisions and others.