The Omega Ensemble, Ensemble in Residence at the City Recital Hall, is celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2015. And what an extraordinary group of passionate and polished performers it is! Under the artistic direction of Founder David Rowden (clarinet), the Ensemble has become one of Sydney’s most impressive chamber music groups. This is no mean feat in a city that is home to some very fine internationally recognised chamber orchestras, as well as a myriad of other ensembles jostling for attention.
The flute and clarinet, matched perfectly in tone and balance
I attended their mid-week concert entitled Chamber to Charleston. I was intrigued by the Charleston reference, but all became clear eventually (as it will to you later in this review). The program opened with Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, string quartet and harp. The flute and clarinet, matched perfectly in tone and balance, began to weave a gentle and beautiful theme, supported in a dream-like way by the strings, and finally joined by the harp painting a picture of sunlight glistening on water. Jane Rosenson’s harp playing was both magical and elegant. While not strictly a concerto for harp, Ravel never the less uses the work to showcase the instrument and Rosenson demonstrated her prowess throughout the work. It was a treat to enjoy the harp as a constant participant in the piece rather than playing occasionally, as is so often the case. In the closing section Rosenson conjured up shimmering rays of light, with the winds mimicking the chirping and singing of birds, all enveloped in a great sense of joy.
The opening run was deliciously rich and deep throated
The second item was Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major. Mozart was intrigued by the clarinet, a ‘new’ instrument in his day, and composed the Quintet for the great clarinettist Anton Stadler. Many in the City Recital Hall had no doubt heard the Quintet before, but this performance was different in that Rowden performed it on basset clarinet. He spent a few minutes explaining how it differed from the clarinet Mozart had composed for and demonstrated how much lower it could go. The opening run was deliciously rich and deep throated, demonstrating the different colour of this instrument, and as a one-time clarinet player I realized how much I liked hearing the piece on basset clarinet. Rowden’s playing was masterful (particularly in the 4th movement where the music shows off the range of the instrument’s capabilities), and appeared to be effortless though one suspects excellent breath control is a necessity!
A delightful duet with bassoon and clarinet
In the second half the Ensemble treated us to two delightful pieces, not regularly featured in chamber music programs. The first, by Czech composer Martinu, was written in Paris between the two world wars and reflects the optimism of the period. The work is scored for an interesting combination of instruments – piano, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin and cello. Influenced by the contemporary music scene in Paris, Martinu’s La Revue de Cuisine is full of syncopation, jazz rhythms (especially on trumpet), a delightful duet with bassoon and clarinet which is picked up by the cello, some jamming on clarinet and muted trumpet, and a clear reference to the dance of the day, the Charleston. Throughout Maria Raspopova raced up and down the piano with more jazz rhythms and syncopation. The whole piece conveyed a wonderful sense of exuberance and was played with precision on the one hand and a lightness of touch on the other.
Trumpet ranged from triumphant to reflective
The program closed with Septet in E flat major (violins, viola, cello, bass, piano, and trumpet) by Saint-Saens who composed this work somewhat reluctantly under pressure from a friend, but it has become one of his signature works. The four movements are quite varied, incorporating a fugue as well as dance and march rhythms. The trumpet playing of Owen Morris ranged from triumphant to reflective but never dominated the ensemble.
Omega were completely in synch with precision and discipline
The Omega Ensemble, a very polished and professional group of musicians playing an interesting combination of instruments, treated us to a master-class in effortless playing. The performers were completely in synch with each other and demonstrated the precision and discipline that good chamber music demands. Chamber to Charleston was a thoroughly enjoyable concert. Catch them next on 16 November at the City Recital Hall.