Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House: 19 February, 2012
This program repeats at the Springwood Civic Centre for the Blue Mountains Concert Society on 26 February
Luke Styles – Shimmers
André Jolivet – Sérénade for Wind Quintet
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no. 14 in C♯ Minor, opus 27 no. 2
Beethoven – Quintet for Piano and Wind, opus 16
Sydney Omega Ensemble
David Rowden – clarinet
Emma Sholl – flute
Shefali Pryor – oboe
Matthew Ockenden – bassoon
Euan Harvey – horn
Gerard Willems – piano
The Sydney Omega Ensemble, as fairly young musicians, though with three members of the SSO’s wind section, in no way without experience, with help from the non-profit Ars Musica Australis, enjoys commissioning and playing new pieces from young Australian composers. They do so in many of their concerts, taking the tactic of mixing them in a program with traditional composers, rather than the all-together contemporary music festival approach. Even if the new pieces are only short, it obviously adds variety for the audience and players and fills in some of the difficult gap between conservatory student concerts and festivals and the commissions of more established composers by Musica Viva (for new chamber music) and the SSO, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Ballet, etc. for new orchestral works, the orchestral works usually coming from the same handful of Australian composers. So it is a valuable little institution David Rowden, the Ensemble’s artistic director, founder and clarinetist, and company have run over the past few years.
In this case the new piece is from Luke Styles, a former classmate of Rowden’s at the Sydney Conservatorium, according to their introduction-spiel, and it is called “Shimmers.” According to the composer, it is inspired by the play of light on Sydney Harbour and the description of certain chords using the same word. In the spectrum of program music, this is closer to the purer “Wind Quintet No. X” than an actual narrative program, but to a Sydney and Sydney tourist audience with the view of the famous Harbour on a archetypal Sydney summer day spread out behind the musicians through the panoramic windows of the Opera House’s Utzon Room, these introductory words raise in us a whole crowd of associations and expectations, perhaps unfairly to the music. The music must be listened to on its own, stand on its own, taken at face value, as much as possible.
The music has a slow, walking tempo, with sustained tutti chords with quite long pauses between. The chords are dissonant, sometimes chromatic, the resulting beats giving us the eponymous shimmering. The chords change at a slow pace, slow enough to give the piece scope and extent seemingly beyond its five or so minutes’ duration, but not so slow that the thread of the harmonic progression is lost. There is not much melody per se, but a rising crescendo motif, first low in the bassoon, somewhat like the call of a large animal, is passed between the instruments. Overall, the mood and color of the harmonies, and the slow, but never slack, tempo reminded me of some of the better film noir scores’ openings — but rather more abstract than that, certainly more abstract than Sydney Harbour, which is a very definite creature, and more abstract even than the general experience of light and water. Vladimir Ashkenazy is right to say the program is only there to entertain us, and here the music is certainly enough on its own without any entertainment or introduction. The equilibrium of dynamics and timbres and the play off the instruments’ overtones makes it something of a performer’s piece, the music sounding beyond the pitches that can be written down conveniently on the page, even if there are no real characteristic solos or passages written separately and specially for any of the instruments in the ensemble.
André Jolivet is not heard too often in Sydney, perhaps eclipsed by Messaien, so it is nice to hear his music along side the new piece. Jolivet’s Sérénade gives much for the oboe to do, being adapted from an oboe sonata, but he also writes significant, that is to say separate, indispensable and characteristic parts for the other instruments, especially the flute and clarinet, to give the piece a certain lucidity, and often a fascinating, not at all “smoothed over,” texture. The ensemble played it very clearly with very fine balance in the acoustic of the room, which although is mostly made, except for Jørn Utzon’s tapestry, of glass and concrete and wood parquet flooring, has surprisingly clean, clear acoustics for wind chamber music. They played practically flawlessly. Shefali Pryor, usually the Sydney Symphony’s associate principal oboe, and sometimes first oboist, as in the Beethoven’s Ninth performance two weeks ago, excelled in the demanding solos, and played especially beautifully in the third movement. As an ensemble, there might have been a few opening day nerves; they tended to keep a strong rein on the rubato, perhaps something more of a symphonic collective collaboration than chamber music experimentation and individual shining warmth, but their understanding of the music came across with immediacy in, for example, the seamless run from the end of the first movement “Cantiléne: Moderato” into the second movement “Caprice: Scherzando” whose first notes had a wonderful sudden bite on the attack with the great swing in mood and tempo.
Joining the ensemble for the second part of the program was Gerard Willems, a professor of piano at the Sydney Conservatorium, and well known for his concert performances as well as his commentary on the Sydney International Piano Competition on ABC Classic FM. First, though, he played the Beethoven C♯ minor sonata. I agree completely with his spiel before hand: it is well worth noting that “moonlight” was not Beethoven’s word, that the piece is, as really all true music is, far more than one word, or any number of words, can describe. Despite the sonata’s over-familiarity and the stickiness of the monicker it is still much more than can be explained or described in words. In this case the word detracts from the music, as Willems said, with its “chocolate box” associations. In fact, in general words cannot add anything to music. Learning about music is one thing, and interesting, well written factual program notes, or even an optional lecture an hour before a concert, are worthwhile — and Willems, Rowden and Styles could no doubt give an interesting lecture — but mandatory introductions to pieces immediately before they are played can detract from the music, though many musicians are doing it now. For me, a piece of music takes over the few moments before and after it’s actual sounding, between the walk-on of the musician (which is in a way an important gesture for a performer in itself), the pause between the applause and the touching of the first note when the musician sort of gathers themself, or the ensemble looks one-another in the eye, and we in the audience are mysteriously and subtlety transported from the background noise of the world to the threshold of the world of the music before it has even begun. That brief moment is part of the music. There is an implied zeroth measure, and somehow talking right before it can spoil this. The Beethoven sonata was also a touch incongruous with the setting, with a view set behind the pianist of a hazy, hot summer day outside, little yellow boats bobbing in the pale blue water, and sailboats tacking and gybing gracefully beyond. Having said that, the music, when taken on its own and with the eyes closed, worked very well. Willems’ interpretation of the Sonata had depth and humanity, showing all the thought and experience over many years of teaching, researching, playing and living,
The triplet arpeggios of the first movement were very distinct, quite percussive even. Willems also chose an interesting balance of the three voices in that first movement: the bass octaves in the left hand somewhat muted, the right hand arpeggios very distinct, and the melody, essentially played with the right pinky half-floated on top. The Steinway piano, fully open, but with the hammers covered, had a boxy sound almost as if one was aware of the mechanism of the piano; I’m not sure it is the ideal piano for the unique, intimate acoustic of that room, seemingly dominated by the tapestry on the back wall, where a musician essentially plays off that tapestry, with the audience in a way able, with their backs turned to it, to hear the tapestry, at least by its sonic shadow. The piano, though, even when touched with some force, never sounded too loud or harsh in the room.
Willems bridged across to the second movement, such a sudden change in tempo and mood, sometimes almost Baroque-sounding, but here in a way sounding very much Romantic. In a sort of plastic transition, he kept his fingers on the pulse of the music through the ringing of the final C♯ minor chord and inter-movement silence, taking off with the second movement without losing his stride. Again a great shift into the third movement, and the fast upward runs seemed alternately legato and something more staccato. The chromatic runs with the sustain pedal filled the piano with shimmering overtones of the held notes in an unmuddy but enclosed way I’ve never heard. At times these effects sounded a bit too forward, though, almost didactic as Willems pointed out the darker turns in the music.
For the Piano Quintet, a quite early Beethoven piece, the wind players seemed a bit more relaxed and free in their playing. Willems may have played a few wrong notes in the sonata, not worth mentioning except to say that mistakes are OK. It is in a way reassuring for an audience to know the musicians are human beings like themselves and in fact “wrong notes” are one of the reasons to go to concerts, otherwise we would just sit in the comfort and safety of our homes and listen to CDs, flawless with all the mistakes edited out, never experiencing first hand the spontaneous immediacy of creative genius. The Quintet finely balances itself between poignancy and cheer, quite delicately put together for a youthful piece, or perhaps it is a carefulness of youth. All the players found much to work with in it. The horn had more leading melodic material in places, than in the other pieces and Euan Harvey played them touchingly. The group rather more “lost themselves” in this music, without loosing the clarity of their sound or their respectful care for the score, with a close rapport with the guest pianist.