Despite the continuing lockdowns, the adaptability and optimism of performers have enabled concert performances and the Arts to persist and flourish in Queensland. Ensemble Q 2021 season has been cut back dramatically, with a national tour for Musica Viva and several insterstate performances scrapped. And of course there were inevitable changes to this program, which was to have featured mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean, who is still in London and will instead perform in 2022, and Ravel’s Piano Trio was also replaced with Mozart’s delicious Clarinet Quintet. But what turned out to be their final concert for 2021 was an uplifting and joyous occasion.

Ensemble Q

Ensemble Q. Image © Peter Wallis

The six movements of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin were each dedicated to a friend of the composer’s who had died during the First World War. The composer arranged four of the movements for orchestra even before the piano version had been performed, and here we heard Paul Dean’s own arrangement of the orchestration. Starting with a delicious oboe in the Prelude by Huw Jones, the oboe returns to lead a jaunty Menuet with a rustic folk style. There was also a lovely harmonious interplay between Trish Dean’s cello and Phoebe Russell’s double bass. Paul Dean initially seemed to be having issues with his clarinet, blowing through the keys at each pause. Nevertheless, any problems were undetectable to the ear as he delivered a bright and breezy solo, finishing with the effervescent Rigaudon.

Composed shortly before Mozart’s death, the Clarinet Quintet combines elements of melancholy with moments of mirth. Ensemble Q Co-Artistic Director Paul Dean dedicated their performance to the recently-departed Donald Westlake, father of Nigel, one of Australia’s finest clarinettists and whose skills had influenced Dean to learn the clarinet. Paul’s wife and Co-Artistic Director Trish had also had the privilege of performing with Don in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, although as Paul hastily added, Trish must have been only five years old at the time!

With violinist Ann Horton sick, guest artist Sonia Wilson, one of QSO’s first violins, stepped in at the last minute to accompany Paul Dean’s clarinet and the string dream team of Natsuko Yoshimoto on violin, Imants Larssens on viola and cellist Trish Dean for a sublime performance. Paul Dean’s rendition was spine-tingling, with his exquisite breath control and sweeping body movements he charmed the audience. His frantic fingering in the cadenza emulated the bubbling chatter of the miner bird. Dean was smiling throughout the piece, thoroughly enjoying positioning the clarinet in the limelight.

Saint-Saëns refused to allow The Carnival of the Animals to be performed until after his death, lest it would mar his reputation. Ironically, his whimsical tribute to nature is his most iconic composition, featuring the idyllic Swan as his delectable masterpiece.

The revered actor Steven Tandy, best known for his role as Tom Sullivan in The Sullivans, narrated the amusing verses written by Trish Dean herself. Each witty ditty preceded the fourteen magical movements. The introduction described it as music to make you smile in a crazy COVID world. After the chattering hen rabble rousers, Paul Dean ceremoniously walked off the stage with a wave, as if to say job done!

Ensemble Q with actor Stephen Tandy performing Saint-Saëns’ ‘Carnival of the Animals’. Image © Peter Wallis.

Trish Dean’s prose was highly amusing, delivered in a commanding tone and with devout solemnity by Tandy. The donkeys “ate sprouts to make their bottom shout,” and a waltzing Ellie had “a mighty belly and smelly trunk”. Narrator Steven Tandy must have been excited to move onto the carrot-loving Characters with Long Ears, as he missed reading the prose for the Aquarium. However, the experienced Ensemble Q took it in their stride, moving seamlessly onto the next movement without a pause.

The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods was another highlight, with Paul Dean hidden on the balcony. His sly cuck-oo’s sounded across the hall as he flittered each time to a different location. The last cuckoo call further amused the audience when with perfected comical timing, he paused for an extra beat before delivering an extended final CUCK-OO.

At the Aviary, the acclaimed Virginia Taylor delivered a finessed fluttering on her magic toot! Guest pianist Samuel Choi, with percussionist Jacob Enoka, were a hilarious double act in Pianists. The “hunched back creatures who charge whopping fees” amused the audience with their poorly executed scales. They swapped for pole position behind the piano after each mistake, whilst old-hand Daniel de Borah kept the pace flawlessly.

After Fossils, where “the bones were a-knocking” in a parody on Danse Macabre, the graceful cello of The Swan followed, worrying about climate change whilst serenely swanning about! The Finale was also topical, warning how we had better not tarry in saving the world. Fortunately, after much applause, Paul announced that they had a built-in encore with the mystical Aquarium, bringing a beautiful end to an incredible showcase of the Ensemble Q’s unlimited talents.

There was an emotional farewell to the fabulous flautist Virginia Taylor, where Paul admitted that he had performed with her for three and a half decades! He described her as an “incredible musician and friend.” After her final flute toot with Ensemble Q it was a fittingly bittersweet end to a concert of uplifting and comical compositions borne from sorrow. Fortunately, the concert was recorded for broadcast by ABC Classic.

This concert will be broadcast on ABC Classic on 28 October. Click here to view the complete broadcast schedule for October.