Quercus Trio, superb! – Absolutely mesmerizing

by | Jun 30, 2022 | Ambassador thoughts, Brass, Trios

Quercus Trio | Hall of Mirrors

Wednesday, 22 June, 2022, Primrose Potter Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

Melbourne-based horn trio ‘Quercus Trio’ – a musical group that champions both new and Australian works – in my mind could only be described as ‘a composer’s dream ensemble.’  The collective encompasses hornist Carla Blackwood (Lecturer in Music Performance at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Melbourne University), violinist Elizabeth Sellars (Member of the String Faculty at MCM), and pianist Rhodri Clarke (Head of Music at Opera Scholars Australia).  The archetype for musicianship standards in this talent pool is not only exceptionally stunning, but imbued with a remarkably genuine deep passion and astonishing commitment to excellence.  According to the website: “The group’s name derives from the Latin word for oak, a genus of around 600 species belonging to the beech family.  The group were drawn to this name after Carla’s sound was described by a composer as ‘like an oak tree,’ and were inspired by this connection between the horn’s sound and the physicality of the wood in the violin and piano.  Added to this is the symbolism of large and timeless oak trees, connecting through earth and rooted in place, and yet reaching through time and space.  An acorn grows its roots deep into Australian soil and becomes an oak tree, wholly itself and of the place where it stands, whilst still being connected to its European origins and genus.  Just as Western classical music flourishing in Australia is rooted in its European origins, connected to its idiom around the world, and yet uniquely of the place where it is performed and conceived.”

And what an interesting bunch of creatives this is! 

Welsh/Australian pianist and Royal College of Music (London) graduate Clarke for example, among the multitude of accolades (see them here) toured Venezuela in 2010 with double bass player Edicson Ruiz, who two decades ago (at the ripe age of seventeen) became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. There’s an interesting backstory…*

Blackwood on the other hand studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which was then followed up with graduate studies at the Zürich Hochschule der Künste and Musikakademie der Stadt Basel in Switzerland.  Her thirteen-year stint in Europe included appointments as Principal Horn of the Tiroler Symphonie Orchester Innsbruck and Professor for Horn at the Tiroler Landeskonservatorium in Austria, as well as guest principal horn roles with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, SWR Sinfonie Orchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Camerata Salzburg, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Swedish Philharmonic Orchestra.

Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London) graduate Sellars is another well-travelled artist, who as soloist and chamber musician has toured right across the United Kingdom, participated in BBC broadcasts, and together with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields performed throughout Europe and Asia.

Three Australian works were presented in the program…

These included the 1962 Trio for horn, violin and piano by Don Banks (1923-1980), the 1984 Barerq for horn trio by Larry Sitsky (1934-) and the 2002 Trio for horn, violin and piano by Roger Smalley (1943-2015).  One of the striking aspects of the Quercus Trio concert presentation was the literally three-dimensional introduction by each of the performers on each of the three composers, which was not only generally informative, but of great value to the listening experience and understanding of the three distinct voices on offer.

For me, the Banks stood out…

This is music not only skilfully crafted, but also faultless in its architecture and musical design.  Banks is of course a highly interesting individual, whose music (which includes concert, jazz, and commercial music) blends jazz and classical analogous to his friend and associate Gunther Schuller (coiner of the term ‘third stream’ in 1957, a style distinctly illustrated in his Seven Studies of Paul Klee of 1959).  To my ears, and in simple terms, this music is a juxtaposition of the Schoenbergian with an unmistakable jazzed-up spiciness.  So definitely adhering to a ‘modern’ musical language (relatively speaking of course, as Arnold’s rule over the kingdom of modernity lapsed more than fifty years ago), but infused with a ‘free’ jazz sensibility.  I love Bank’s emotive and broad lyrical lines in his 1962 horn trio, which display a certain ambiguous quality (not quite tonal or atonal) and demonstrate an amazing level of melodic invention that is accordingly adorned with spikey rhythmic interjections.  This is definitely part of the musical language that American minimalist composer and music theorist (also former student of Morton Feldman) Tom Johnson (1939-) in Other Harmony: Beyond Tonal and Atonal (2014) refers to as “all other harmony that has dominated musical practice for at least fifty years.”  The harmony beyond tonality and atonality in other words.  In this book Johnson presents the theories of Allen Forte, Leonhard Euler, Olivier Messiaen, and others; as well as an introduction to a variety of chord families, and mathematical applications: heights, sums modulo n, homometric pairs and combinatorial designs.  The way that Banks distributes his materials amongst the instruments (a feature that generates abundance in contrast and timbral colour) is additionally stupendous.  In this particular work, the melodic lines interweave within a compositional fluidity that is galvanized by a semblant organic development, supported by a harmonically rich musical language, and a solid form and structure featuring orchestrations that deliver a great sense of space.  The performance by Quercus Trio, superb! – Absolutely mesmerizing.

Sitsky’s offering (his 1984 Barerq for horn trio) was surprising. 

But surprising in a positive way, because as both author of the Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 (1994) and pioneer of modernist music in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s one has certain stylistic expectations, and this work dispels an aesthetic homogeneity.  Good for him I say, as I personally do not subscribe to any particular school of composition.  In other words, I never allow my musical ideologies to permanently rest within the comfortable confines of any particular school – tonal, atonal, modal, or otherwise.  The only thing that I can say is consistent in my beliefs is that I will always stand by music that moves the human spirit.  And Sitsky, just like me is one of those aesthetic chameleons.  Sitsky’s sound world is characterised by Sitsky as an “intense expressionistic style, the improvisatory aspects, the ejaculatory phrases, the abrupt changes of dynamics with its associate expressiveness,” and according to personal comments has altered his musical language over the years to “express himself in ways that are not familiar and ‘easy.’”  The mystical quality of music that Sitsky aspires to reflect in his oeuvre is certainly here in Barerq, which from the onset projects a bold, majestic and solemn display of quasi-early music modality within a sweet introduction by Blackwood, to then soar into greater heights with the later appearance of Sellars, who then sounds a set of beautiful and moving violin melodies that lift the mood; reminiscent of the devotional ritualistic music of the Sufis, and artists such as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, that aimed through their music not only at expressing the Sufi message of love and unity, but via the gradual building of the music to a climax in emotional intensity to also potentially connect with God.  Barerq is music with meaning and purpose.

And the Smalley…

While I did not connect in the same way with the Smalley – I found his compositional idiom a tab too conservative – the third movement of his 2002 Trio for horn, violin and piano is sensational.  There is an incredible energy that this music is undeniably able to convey.  This is beautiful writing from a composer that certainly has deservedly earned the respect of the Australian artistic community to become part of the ongoing legacy of Australian music composition.


*The backstory is quite interesting, because double bassist Edicson Ruiz represents how culture and art can transform society in ways beyond our imagination.  He is a by-product of ‘El Sistema’, founded in 1975 by Venezuelan orchestra conductor, pianist, economist, educator, activist, and politician José Antonio Abreu (1939-2018), and a “publicly financed, voluntary sector, music-education program” that in time was to adopt the motto ‘Music for Social Change.’  What this public policy initiative means in tangible terms is that every child aspiring to play a musical instrument will be bestowed with an instrument by the state, to be then able to plug into one of the countless orchestras found in every suburb of every city of the country.  The 2021 count for Venezuela included 1,210 youth orchestras and 372 youth choirs; the inspirational outcome being the world renowned Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela (SBSOV) – “the apex of the nation’s system of youth orchestras.”  (https://youtu.be/LbjGH2QtoI8).  The program has produced several musical greats, such as Ruiz and of course, Gustavo Dudamel (artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Opéra national de Paris), who today (at the age of 41) is undoubtedly one of the world’s most acclaimed conductors.  The personal significance to me is that in October I will be travelling to Venezuela to work with the SBSOV conducted by its artistic director and chief conductor Alfredo Rugeles, presenting a work commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC and dedicated to Abreu.

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