Sir John Clancy Auditorium, University of New South Wales
October 13, 2018

For their final subscription concert of 2018, the Australia Ensemble (resident at the University of New South Wales) provided a typically thoughtful program. Under the title Forces of Nature, it comprised both well known and little known works, including two Australian compositions.

This ensemble not only commissions new works, but also has the good sense to program them more than once. The Australian commissions, both in the first half of the concert, were respectively premiered in 2012 and 2007. The first, by the New Zealand/Australian composer Maria Grenfell, was a piece entitled Ten Suns Ablaze (for flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano). Linked to a Chinese legend involving ten “sun birds”, the work is in three movements. The first begins in an impressionistic haze, featuring the distinctive colours of alto flute and bass clarinet. It feels like the aural equivalent of those Chinese paintings where sharp mountain peaks rise out of a mist, the mist in this case being a pentatonic string and piano wash. The bouncy second movement, Spirited, reminded me of the fast, rhythmic passages in Peter Sculthorpe’s string quartets. A soothing third movement suddenly bursts into life towards the end, then abruptly ceases. This fine composer deftly combines an Asian perspective of timelessness with postmodern harmonies, and Ten Suns Ablaze was well worth a second outing. The ensemble’s rhythmic attack was polished, while the Clancy Auditorium’s generous acoustic added the perfect amount of air to Grenfell’s evocative textures.

Nigel Westlake’s Rare Sugar is another three-movement work, where the contrasts are more extreme. The vigorous outer movements, though not always forte, are brimming with life force. A technically demanding part for the clarinet (Westlake’s own instrument) dominates, but the piano part is equally unrelenting. Clarinetist David Griffiths and pianist Ian Munro not only rose to the challenges but positively made light of them. The central movement is tranquil and sparsely scored; a long passage just before the clarinet cadenza brings to mind the mood of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The composer was in attendance, and seemed delighted with the virtuoso performance (as well he might be).

Between these two was the best known music, but not in the form it is usually heard: the second movement, Scene by the Brook, from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral. This 1810 arrangement for string septet was by Beethoven’s contemporary Michael Gotthard Fischer, designed for a domestic chamber music soirée. It worked a treat in the Australia Ensemble’s richly projected performance, with string soloists making perfectly acceptable birdcall imitations (especially Dene Olding’s trilling first violin).

The concert’s second half comprised two works. The first, Landscape with Birds (1980) by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, is for solo flute, and employs many avant-garde techniques. In fact, while the flute is traditionally associated with birds, it was hard not to hear most of the fragmentary music as a series of technical effects (valiantly realised by flautist Geoffrey Collins). Possibly to add cohesion, the programmers accompanied it with a series of projections of beautiful photographs of Australian birds and landscapes, thereby localising the piece.

The concert concluded with the Suite from Aaron Copland’s 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring, in its original scoring for thirteen instruments. It was a superbly characterised performance of music that has many hidden traps: intonation has to be spot on from everyone because a lot of doubling occurs in the score. While the playing was universally fine, I can’t help singling out for praise guest bassoonist Andrew Barnes: much of the bassoon part lies in the high register and he produced consistently lovely sound.

This thoroughly enjoyable concert was accompanied by the launch of the Australia Ensemble’s 2019 season (launched by their Artistic Chair Paul Stanhope), and the coming programs look equally enticing. 2019 will be this cherished ensemble’s 40th year. Perhaps we should signify the anniversary by projecting ads for their concerts onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House? Now that would make sense!

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