With the ensemble name like La Fraternità di soloisti, and a chamber group consisting of strings, my expectations were set to expect a program of Vivaldi and Corelli. And with a concert name like winter chills, could we be hearing anything but at least one of the Four Seasons?
Of course that would be far too obvious a program for one of Melbourne's newest ensembles of professional musicians ably conducted by the imposing Gyula (pronounced Jule) Cseszkó. I was delighted to discover a wonderfully varied program, featuring Arvo Pärt, Handel, Ernst Bloch and Dvorák.
We were guided through the program by a musicologist who gave the background to all the pieces of the concert. I very much appreciate this approach, especially for a lesser known program. It adds interest and provides a lilting rhythm to a concert. In this case the speeches were given quite earnestly, but the gentle humour was there for those who listened out for it.
The Pärt began the concert in a meditative, quasi-religious mood which suited the slightly gothic setting of the Auburn Uniting church. Its a surprisingly squat but large church, allowing the audience to surround the musicians; giving an "in-the-round" feel to the performance. The sonorous strings rising and falling like gentle waves in a sheltered bay, allowed the audience to shed outside cares and become present for the concert. If you needed anymore help to transport you to another era, you could have read the olde world version of the ten commandments emblazoned on the church columns. I realised there were many things of my neighbour's that I wasn't allowed to covet.
In the background to the group of about fifteen string players was the massive church organ, which was majestically brought into play for the Handel Organ concerto in B flat. Geoff Urquart strode confidently to his seat at the keyboard, and we could see the twinkle in his eye through the mirror he used to observe the conductor. The Handel concerto galloped along jauntily, and held together tightly. This was no sombre church music, but a joyous expression of the organ, beautifully accompanied by full throated strings, relishing the runs and turns.
My favourite piece for the concert was the Ernst Bloch - from "Jewish Life". Soloist Imogen Manins emerged from the orchestral group to sit next to the conductor. The opening of the piece began with weeping yearning cello, with the rich notes reverberating through the massive church pile, ably supported by the lower strings . I enjoyed the space given to the notes, the beautiful phrasing, the lingering in pain and sorrow. Just when the ache could be born no more, we were into the second movement, which was more beautiful, more lyrical; a pure tune of hope. It felt like being renewed in a bubbling fresh spring surrounded by soft grass. The third movement was an expression of love, underpinned by the interplay between solo cello and soli viola.
The encore evoked the spirit of Jaqueline du pré, and surprisingly the orchestra cello joined in towards the end. Beautiful.
After the interval, The "Fraternity of soloists" played the Dvorak Serenade for strings. Although I don't know the piece very well, I felt the early tempos were a little sombre for this piece. I found myself willing it along. Maybe I was eyeing off the tea and coffee, maybe I was looking for a bit more interest in the music. The musicologist described the piece as "joyful" and maybe that raised my expectations. The orchestra came through with the joy for the scherzo movement and the final Allegro vivace.
This is an orchestra in its president's own words, "finding its feet", and I very much appreciated the interesting programme, the fine playing and the added context provided by the musicologist. They are also attempting to give the audience a chance to connect with the experience by providing a social time afterwards with ample refreshments and access to the musicians. This was quite successful with a substantial part of the audience staying back to take up the offer, in the afterglow of a lovely concert.
Quirky is the wind quintet, even by their own admission.
Jaunty was their concert opening with three short pieces by Jaques Ibert. The opening allegro bounced around like a jalopy on a rough mountain track. The oboe is given some pretty slick work early on, but soon all join in to some pretty relentless technical work, handing runs on between each other with precision. The andante has beautiful pastoral tunes, dominated by a lovely clarinet and flute duet, whilst the final of the three plays to the quirkiness of the quintet, led by a clarinet solo with lots of interjections from the other players.
Arcadia is a fine new group, of confident and energetic performers coming out of ANAM and nurtured by Musica Viva. They look good on stage, each bringing their individual personality to the performance. It was great fun to watch them interact in bringing the music to life. They had also prepared some wonderful introductions to the pieces allowing them to each express their personality behind the microphone as well. I think this worked very well for such a programme which is less immediately recognisable.
This concert also presented the world premiere of a piece created by Musica Viva's Hildegard project. The Hildegard project aims to commission works by female composers. Composer Gabriella Vici is only 21 years old.
The piece "To Ash from Embers" was introduced by composer Gabrielle Vici herself. The piece begins serenely, but soon builds in excitement, like the swirling smoke and sparks evocative of the title. To help the reader get a sense of the piece, it reminded me of the excitement and rhythmic pulse of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. A barely contained chaos, yet with great structure and form. I imagined nymphs dancing in a shower of sparks from the fire. An enjoyable showcase for this talented quintet, and finally some modern classical music that you can listen to.
The spoken introduction to the final piece Carl Nielsen's wind quintet Op 43, was a joy to experience from this well spoken quintet. They told the famous story that Nielsen was inspired to write the piece after hearing the Copenhagen wind quintet play in the background when he was on the phone. The story goes he wrote the piece for these individuals to suit their character. This can all be found by a casual glance at Wikipedia, but the The Arcadia Quintet introduction went further to describe these various player characteristics, and challenged the audience to decide whether they too had these characteristics. They played up to these characteristics somewhat during the piece much to the delight of the audience. I particularly enjoyed the cor anglais section in the final movement of the work, as well as the interaction between the clarinet and bassoon which was highlighted in the talk. Now which instrument won the battle?
These guys are a bunch of fun with a lot of character. They also have a fine sense on how to entertain and put on a concert with great virtuosity with just just the right amount of humour and quirk to delight any audience.