Claire Edwardes and Nick Russoniello, real, live musical enigmas

by | Nov 9, 2021 | Ambassador thoughts, Composer, Percussion, Saxophone

Just down the street from Sydney’s Green Square station, is a funkily designed space with high ceilings, terrazzo flooring and tessellated tiles, to me Mecca coffee screams out “make music in me!” and that is exactly what Vladimir Fanshil, co-founder of Live at Yours, is doing. Partnering with Mecca, and with the support of City of Sydney, Live at Yours is presenting concerts each month where Sydney music lovers can (according to Live at Yours’ publicity) “sip on a natural wine and taste a sumptuous mezze plate in the industrial chic, whilst our artists dazzle you with musical masterpieces!”

At Sunday night’s Musical Enigmas, a sort of modern day salon concert, our artists were the incomparable Claire Edwardes on marimba and Nick Russoniello on soprano saxophone, and dazzle they did.

The first third of the concert was dominated by unusual transcriptions including J.S. Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor mvt3 and G.P Telemann’s Fantasia No 1 in A major on the saxophone. As the pair explained, there was no baroque music written for their instruments, they did not exist at the time, but these works demonstrated both the versatility of the two instruments and the virtuosic prowess of the two musicians. Next was Elgar’s Nimrod from Enigma Variations on marimba, a self confessed guilty pleasure of Edwardes who warned us it may sound quite different on the marimba, ‘it’s not an easy feat trying to be a whole orchestra’, she laughed at the end but she handled the piece remarkably with her usual focused-yet-relaxed style.

For the remainder of the evening we were treated to nearly all Australian music by living composers and known to the pair personally. Elena Kats-Chernin’s, Violet’s Etude was a lovely dance-like piece evoking the frolicksome little girl it was written for, Edwardes’ own daughter, a toddler at the time of the work’s creation in 2010. Like many Kats-Chernin works it at times had a throbbing undercurrent against a dancing melody and there was palpable joy on Edwardes’ face as she played this familiar ‘party piece’.

The first duet of the evening was Stuart Greenbaum’s Life in a Day, conceived for Shakuhachi and Harp. This was the first time Edwardes and Russoniello have performed together – who would have thought that industrial chic, marimba and sax would complement each other so wonderfully? I had no idea a marimba could produce a harp-style glissando or the saxophone could be so percussive yet airy in sound, what a superb arrangement of an electric piece of music. The venue added to the soundscape with an occasional swoosh of a car in the rain-sodden street, the clink of a glass of delicious moscato, and once or twice a rushing passerby did a serious double-take when they peered in through the glass as if they were witnessing something extraordinary. Indeed they were, we were experiencing real live, intoxicating music making which pulled us out of our close covid routines, sometimes challenging our senses, but always filling them.

Hindson’s Flash, ‘was originally for solo xylophone’, Edwardes tells us, ‘but no-one was playing it’, so he rearranged it for marimba and she gave it a new lease of life. It is indeed a sort of ‘flashy’ work, quite frenetic, and even during the slower pauses it was reminiscent of a runner catching their breath only to get back into the race. Edwardes played with her usual flair.

The next duet, this time from UK composer Graham Fitkin, Glass gave Russoniello the opportunity to lean in to an expressive lyrical melody and the duo literally danced with their instruments. I sometimes associate a soprano sax with high excitement and an occasional ‘squeaky’ tone, but this was smooth and contemplative music from a highly accomplished and awarded musician, beautiful.

The final two composers represented in this program were women, not unsurprising as Edwardes is well known for her passionate stance on gender equal programming. She also has recently recorded an album of solo works for high school and tertiary level percussionists all by living female Australian composers, an admirable body of work. She played two of the works from this album, Meditations and Hymns and Fancy & Flight by SA based Anne Cawrse. These pieces were recognisably and enjoyably Australian in their tone with unexpected chordal structures and references to Ross Edwards throughout.

The highlight of the evening came in the form of an unexpected (for me at least) world premiere from composer Natalie Nicolas.

Selected in 2016 for the inaugural National Women Composer’s Development Program she has a quickly growing list of significant compositions which have been performed by many highly respected ensembles including ACO and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It is always very special to witness a composer at their world premiere, Natalie confessed that her Catch me if you Can was ‘virtually impossible’ to play to the extent that this piece was one of the (many) catalysts for Edwardes’ recently launched Composer Kit, a resource for composers writing for the marimba. But Edwardes and Russoniello made it look easy, what we have come to expect from these two virtuoso performers. If the saxophone and marimba seem to be unusual bedfellows, in the hands of this extremely capable composer they really rocked.

Necessity is the mother of invention and while it’s so very important for musicians to be able to continue their work through the online and streamed format, there is nothing quite like live performance. To be in a space with physical bodies, vibrations, heat, messiness and music was an absolute pleasure and a true feast for the senses. As Fanshil (a conductor and pianist himself) so eloquently put it in his interval chat, ‘Without an audience it all feels like a rehearsal…’

The Live at Yours team have more concerts planned at Mecca soon, I’d highly recommend catching one.

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