This was my first encounter with the young Sydney group Ensemble Apex and I knew straight away it was going to be a different kind of concert experience when the program notes invited me to get my phone out, take photos and videos and post them on social media. That and the fact that it was being staged in the Powerhouse Museum where patrons could be forgiven for wandering off and checking out the Apollo moon landing exhibits upstairs. No one did.
Sam Weller and Ensemble Apex. Photo © Anthony Geernaert
Charismatic Artistic and Musical Director Sam Weller and his band of cutting edge young musicians were impressive both musically and visually, performing beneath the Apollo show’s massive global photographic moonscape. Weller had come up with an adventurous and intriguing collection of works by composers who might normally make strange bedfellows. The common thread, he said, was that they all had a “groove”.
The evening was set up by an attractive piece by dynamic Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima. Violoncelles Vibrez! is one of his most popular works and features two cellists, in this case two talented lads from Adelaide, James Morley and David Moran, both of whom are studying under Howard Penny in Melbourne.
The pulse kicks in early with the seductive swaying rhythms of the strings and walking bass lines, before Morley and Moran launched into the superbly co-ordinated unaccompanied duet where the shifting three-beat and two-beat rhythms built to an ecstatic climax.
Groove of a grimmer colour came in the second work, Abram Stasevich’s chamber orchestra arrangement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s most personal and popular quartet, the Eighth, written after he saw the results of the bombing of Dresden in World War II. Here Weller let the ominously serene opening slowly unfold before the ferocious, angry second movement, with its visceral Jewish theme. He chose just the right tempo for this work, slow but never dragging in the outer movements, violent and intense for the middle, always paying attention to its arc-like structure. Stasevich’s use of timpani added a new dimension to the dramatic episodes. The Apex’s string section, led by concertmaster Anna Da Silva Chen, were on point throughout this intense and haunting work.
Oliver Shermacher and Ensemble Apex. Photo © Anthony Geernaert
After interval came a change of mood and a bravura solo performance from rising star Oliver Shermacher of Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, written for legendary swing jazzman Benny Goodman. Here the groove was unmistakable, from the gentle rocking strings and harp accompaniment to Copland’s sweet opening melody to the swooping solo cadenza, with its bent notes and slurred stratospheric runs. The dancey second movement fairly zipped along under Weller’s baton.
You wouldn’t normally apply the term “groove” to Joseph Haydn, although in his 60th Symphony, nicknamed The Distracted from a comic play of the same name, there is certainly more Sturm und Swing than Drang. This extraordinary work in six short movements portrays an absent-minded bridegroom who gets distracted from turning up to his own wedding. We hear Balkan folk music – cleverly evoked by twin oboes – and some drunken revelry with off-kilter horn and trumpet passages before the final movement starts as a cacophony when the wedding orchestra forgets to tune. Weller and his band exploited this to its maximum, playing with a fine sense musical abandon and wit, all under the giant Powerhouse moon.
The evening was more a Sea of Crisis than Tranquillity, but above all it was a very happy landing for Weller and his stellar young crew.