★★★★☆ A procession of first-rate artists and ensembles with a few fascinating surprises.

A&I Hall, Bangalow
August 14, 2015

A procession of first-rate artists and ensembles. As with all of the concerts I heard at The Bangalow Music Festival, I would have been interested to listen to any one of them perform an full recital on their own.

The concert opened with the youthful Orava Quartet playing the first movement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 6 in F Minor. Why just a movement? Here I definitely wanted the complete work. They are a darned good quartet. The personality of this music seems to emanate from their energetic cellist Karol Kowalik (whose brother also plays violin in the band); a welcome alternative to the usual violin-centric approach. The Oravas are an ensemble rich in communication. In this Mendelssohn it was clear – both visually and aurally – the manner in which motifs are tossed between voices. The first theme begins with savage tremolo accents, passed between the instruments. These were accurate and ferocious. They have a cone-shaped sound, in which the lowest voice is the main personality, and the upper parts take their place in the hierarchy of overtones. But then, inner voices are made to be clear at the right time.

Richard Strauss’s Fünf Lieder, Op. 48 were performed by Melbourne-bred and Munich-based Soprano Alexandra Flood. You can really hear that Flood understands the text she is singing. The poems were allowed to swim in Strauss’ expanded harmonic palette: each word and phrase made sense. She has a rich voice with exuberant expression. The original version of these songs is for piano and voice. Why add a string quartet? John Rotar’s arrangement was certainly good, and even sounded like Strauss. But we could have heard the authentic version without them. The Geist string quartet – according to their bio – “compromises” postgraduate musicians from Sydney Conservatorium (perhaps it does, but for now let’s presume it merely “comprises” them). They played the Strauss with musicality and good intonation.

The addition of William Barton was a delightful and fascinating surprise in this variety show-style program. In Barton’s hands, the didjeridu is in no-way the “long low note” that you might think it can be (I didn’t hear a single drone in his piece). It was, instead an instrument of rhythmic abundance. You can hear the spirit of Peter Sculthorpe (a former mentor to the young Barton) in his affinity for additive rhythms. Barton combined familiar didjeridu sounds with rhythmic tapping and singing into the instruments, creating resonant beating against the main pitch.

Jake Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions: Hommage to Poulenc is music about music. This 2008 song cycle for small ensemble and singer is actually very operatic, especially when in the hands and larynx of Australian tenor Alexander Lewis. Lewis is animated and brings the text to life with drama and honesty. The piece deals with several struggles of Poulenc’s life, including his inability to submit a composition on time and relationship woes. Heggie’s piece uses a playful tonality with spiky, flickery surprises, rather like Poulenc’s own music.

This concert concluded with Stravinsky’s own arrangement for violin, clarinet and piano of a suite from L’Histoire du Soldat (the talking is omitted). This performance by Piers Lane, Victoria Sayles and Ashley Smith was captivating. Smith is a very communicative clarinetist. The way he ‘danced’ with his instrument (not a distraction) was rather in the spirit of this most theatrical of chamber works. Sayles’ playing was dogged and scratchy (a good thing in this piece). The visual and sonic connection between the players was particularly fun: Sayles and Smith often appeared to be duelling. Lane’s playing features a clear hierarchy of layers and dynamics, each with their separate personalities.