Problems with light rail construction and venue renovations, as well as the Sydney Swans playing a home match at the SCG, meant that reaching the Sir John Clancy Auditorium at the University of New South Wales on Saturday was problematic. It took very little time, however, to realise that the effort was worthwhile with a carefully crafted programme contrasting the familiar and the less so. Cleverly titled “No strings attached”, the programme featured three members of the University’s resident ensemble, the Australia Ensemble, and four Guest Artists.
Mozart’s well-known Quintet in E Flat for piano and wind is a superbly crafted work whose appeal never dwindles. I have heard it many times and can’t recall a more lively or engaging rendition. From the slow entry to the Allegro to the clever ending to the Rondo, the energy was relentless and the melding of the wind and piano faultless. Ian Munro on the piano carried off what is probably the cornerstone of the work brilliantly, adding a few controversial filigrees to his entries. He has been in the Ensemble for close to twenty years and is well known as a soloist and, more recently, a revered composer. I particularly appreciated the Horn playing of Robert Johnson, who has for so many years been a stalwart of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. His chosen instrument is particularly difficult to play and any faults would be apparent in this small group but, of course, there were none.
Resident Flautist Geoffrey Collins is the longest serving member of the Ensemble and amazingly is also principal flute for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. He introduced the following work, “Janet” by Australian composer Martin Wesley-Smith, with an amusing story relating that the work’s namesake was that of an alpaca which belonged to Wesley-Smith, and caused problems when “she” turned out to be male! In the piece, the left hand of the pianist is joined by the right followed by the marimba and then the flute. The marimba – the larger cousin of the xylophone with a wider range and warmer tone – was handled with aplomb by Alison Pratt who has played in Sweden and the USA and was a long-time member of well-known percussion group “Synergy”. Her efforts were pivotal to the work which gradually accelerated from humble beginnings to a climax with episodes reminiscent of Jazz, Latin American and Café-chantant before ending with a quiet syncopated piano. Very exhilarating!
The next piece provided no break in the programme’s whimsicality. Francis Poulenc more than most had both a playful and a serious side. He wrote his Wind Sextet when he was only 32, although he revised it seven years later. It was only in his later years that his compositions took on a more serious tone. The music is jumpy and jazzy bringing to mind both Stravinsky and Gershwin, and Poulenc uses the technique of referring to themes from the first movement in the succeeding two. The Sextet gives an overall uplifting feeling and the music demonstrates the clever intertwining of the wind instruments and piano, even though the latter is often rhythmically detached. I particularly noticed the oboe playing of Shefali Pryor who is Associate Principal oboist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I was lucky enough to hear her play the Concerto written for her by Alan Holley and she has a busy programme playing in several orchestras here and abroad. Shefali seems to produce an intonation on this instrument second to none.
After the interval, I felt that the music would turn a shade darker when I saw the name György Ligeti, a composer with whom I associate modernism and atonality. On hearing his Six Bagatelles written when he was 38, I realised how mistaken I was. Written as it is for wind quintet, I found the music quite approachable. The first section was really tuneful and included Geoffrey Collins doubling on the piccolo as he did again in the dance-like finale. In the third movement, Allegro Grazioso, the instruments played against a ground bassoon bass, which was particularly attractive to me and hard work for the bassoonist. Lyndon Watts played in the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, before moving to Berne as Professor of bassoon for ten years. Happily, he returned to Australia where he is now a lecturer at the Melbourne Conservatorium. I don’t recall hearing this instrument in such a prominent role as it was in this concert and I feel that the acoustics were first class. The fourth movement brought about a carnival atmosphere while the lively last movement ended with a whimper. Much of the music was reminiscent of Béla Bartók who was a close friend of the composer.
I had never heard of Ludwig Thuille, even though he was a close friend of Richard Strauss, and when young was thought to be the more promising although less avant-garde and probably less ambitious. On hearing the opening Allegro Moderato of his Sextet Op. 6, I thought at first that I was hearing Brahms’ Fifth Symphony but the two main themes developed more sedately while the first theme recurred throughout the movement. In the second movement, Larghetto, the first theme on the horn is echoed beautifully by the clarinet while the flute is then prominent. Clarinettist David Griffiths hails from Armidale and apart from the Ensemble finds time to be the lecturer in clarinet at Melbourne University. He has also appeared as soloist many times and notably in first performances of concertos by several contemporary Australian composers. No scherzo or minuet for Thuille but a gavotte, more a jig I felt which modulated from G minor to the major and became irreverent before returning to the original. The last movement is skittish demonstrating the full range of the wind instruments with the piano having an accompanying role. I must remember to seek out other works by this composer.
This concert, excellently performed, was challenging with its mixture of the familiar and more obscure, but every moment was enjoyable and I’m sure the performers, though probably exhausted, would agree with that – as would the enthusiastic audience.