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With each concert the Australia Piano Quartet (APQ) demonstrates why it is one of the country’s most dynamic and adventurous chamber groups. It is often said that music and the sciences, particularly maths, go hand in hand; on this evening, the UTS resident ensemble invited us into their pad for a concert entitled Mendelssohn Meets Mechatronics. The concert took place in the Engineering and IT building, and it was clear that this was to be no ordinary concert when it required some feat of imaginative ingenuity to work out how to get from Level 0 to Level 1 where the concert took place. The APQ was stationed amid an entanglement of gadgets, screens, robots and wires, while the architecture of the building itself provided a unique backdrop to the evening’s performance, with its angular staircases, walkways and floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
The first item on the programme was a truncated arrangement of Mozart’s Wind Quintet K452 for piano quartet. The ensemble performed just the Largo – Allegro Moderato first movement – an elegant and restrained palate cleanser. Mozart of course is capable of the most dramatic musical moments, but his precocity is never far from the surface. Here the composer’s cheekiness was captured well by the quartet, with Rebecca Chan and James Wannan bouncing out of their seats throughout the Allegro.
From Mozart we moved to the modern and mechatronic, with a work composed by Limelight’s own Andrew Batt-Rawden, entitled Catharsis. The genesis of this composition was a stressful moment in the composer’s life where a friend was diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer. Anyone who knows Andrew knows he wears his emotions on his sleeve (and on the music manuscript), and this piece provided an outlet for his pent up stress, “taking the angst of my heart and releasing it”, as he puts it. An intriguing nuance of this work is that two of the musicians are each hooked up to a wire such that their heartbeats are projected onto a screen. The different heartbeats then become a metronome for disparate lines within the piece, with the result that different musicians within the quartet are playing in different time. This Ivesian touch was quite unique, but the personal story as well as the music itself added a poignancy that removed any sense of gimmickry. The music was dramatic, with a few moments of quite surreal beauty. Other moments evoked an almost Wozzeckian terror, featuring aggressive sforzandi in the strings and crashing chordal passages in the piano. On a more philosophical note, the work blew apart the idea that the hearts of musicians in a chamber work are “in sync”, with the inconsistent beats on the screen for all to see.
The final item of the night was a real thigh-slapper, written by an extraordinarily precocious fifteen-year-old Mendelssohn – and dedicated to Goethe, no less! This reviewer was not sure whether to be most taken aback by the genius of the young Felix Bartholdy; the musicianship and panache of the quartet; the wizadry of pianist Daniel de Borah; or the robot that sat in the corner, diffidently spraying paint onto a white sheet of paper. The first movement’s Schumannesque opening theme was played with a brooding colour, the strings hovering hauntingly above the rippling piano lines, while the final dénouement of the movement was exciting without becoming strident. The slow second movement provided some respite, performed with a Mozartean grace and clarity. Mendelssohn the malapert showed his age in the final two movements, where the third movement’s Allegro molto is followed by an even racier Allegro vivace finale. In the hands of the APQ, this was edge-of-your-seat stuff that fell short of vulgarity. Of note were the brilliant perpetuum mobile passages in the piano, the full tone of Thomas Rann’s cello, and the interactions between violin and viola, Rebecca Chan leaping up and down the fingerboard with characteristic flair and show-womanship.