Artistic Director of the Omega Ensemble, David Rowden, shares the secrets of their success.

The Omega Ensemble is a heartening Australian music success story. From humble beginnings as a student ensemble, they have grown in number and reputation over the years and in 2015 they celebrate their tenth anniversary as one of the most innovative and accomplished chamber ensembles in the country. It’s a reputation they’ve cemented by becoming one of Sydney’s City Recital Hall Resident Ensembles in 2013.

So how has this acclaimed ensemble prospered where others have struggled to make an impact? Omega have found a winning strategy programming rare chamber music treasures, new arrangements and original commissions as well as working with exciting guest artist collaborators. It’s no wonder then that they’ve been described as “the best chamber music outfit in town” by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Maxim Boon caught up the Omega Ensemble’s founder, Artistic Director and principal clarinettist David Rowden, to learn the secret of Omega’s success.

Photo: Bruce Terry

You’re celebrating your 10th anniversary in 2015, congratulations! Take me back to the beginning, how did Omega get started? What’s been the highlight of the last decade?

Omega Ensemble was founded when I returned from studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2005. I was always interested and passionate about chamber music, and founded a wind quintet in London called the Omega Wind Quintet.  We had some wonderful performances opportunities, and even played in Buckingham Palace, performing a work by the Queen’s composer Peter Maxwell Davies. 

After returning to Sydney I thought, wouldn’t it be great to combine with a string quintet and piano to have an ensemble that could perform works drawn from the entire chamber music repertoire. A month later Sydney’s Omega Ensemble was born. 

One of the musical triumphs from the past ten years for me was to work with my all time clarinet idol, Paul Meyer in a concert this year entitled Enlightened. Paul actually conducted the Ensemble in a performance of John Adams Chamber Symphony, which is a ferociously demanding piece. For me, this represents the ‘Mount Everest’ of chamber music repertoire, and was one of the most satisfying performances in Omega’s ten-year history. 

Keeping a chamber ensemble running is no mean feat, and Omega have gone from strength to strength, becoming a Resident Ensemble at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place in 2013.

You are spot on, keeping a chamber music ensemble running can be likened to raising a child. My wife, Maria Raspopova and I have a 14th month and are expecting a baby boy in March. One thing that I remember from the pre-natal classes was the midwife saying that “when raising your baby, you need to accept all the help and advice from family and friends, and really it does take a whole village to raise a baby.” This was excellent advice, and I would say it also takes a village to raise an Ensemble! We have a wonderful Omega family, extending right from our board, performers, patrons, venue staff, sponsors and media partners, all of whom contribute an enormous amount to the growth and strength of the Ensemble. We’re incredibly fortunate to have an incredible village! 

It takes a huge amount of passion, perseverance and determination to be able to keep this dream alive. I have to say, becoming Ensemble in Residence at City Recital Hall was a career game-changer, and made all the years hard work preceding this feel all the more worth it. It is incredible to have arguably one of Australia’s finest concert halls as your home. It is the perfect venue for chamber music. 

You’ve got some very exciting guest artists joining you during 2015. Tell me a bit more about that.

Omega Ensemble are joined for the 2015 Season by three iconic Australian guest artists, Kathryn Selby (piano), Daniel De Borah (piano) and Jane Sheldon (soprano). Jane, who is based in New York, will join Omega in unveiling the world premiere Chamber Symphony for Soprano by Australian composer Mark Isaacs. 

I have always admired the work of Kathryn Selby, not only for her incredible flair as a pianist, but in her role as Artistic Director of Selby & Friends. It will be a real privilege to perform alongside her in a concert featuring works for piano and wind quintet by Mozart.

I have known Daniel De Borah for many years, as we were at the Royal Academy together over 10 years ago now. I have always wanted to work with him, and I am so pleased to be able to make our first collaboration possible in 2015. 

Jane Sheldon has the most mesmerising voice, and such a diverse and interesting career. I am very much looking forward to working with Jane to realise this new work by Mark Isaacs. We will be pairing this premiere with Stanhope’s Songs for the Shadowland and Mahler’s epic Fourth Symphony arranged for chamber ensemble by Klaus Simon.  Amongst other rarely heard arrangements of larger symphonic works, includes the Nonet and double bass arrangement of The Nutcracker to conclude the season.

You’ve built a reputation for pairing works by lesser known composers alongside big box-office draws like Mozart. How do you decide on your eclectic programs?

Part of the excitement of chamber music for me, and in my role as Artistic Director is unearthing rarely heard chamber music gems to perform. I often try to keep this in mind when programming, for instance alongside a well-known work such as the Mozart Piano and Winds, I have programmed a lesser known work for the same instrumentation by a female French composer Louise Farrenc – a rarely performed and well deserving work, by a composer that should have more outings. 

I centre most of my programming around one feature work, and I balance this with complementing and contrasting works. My aim is to challenge the audience, and expose them to rarely heard works. At the end of any performance by Omega Ensemble, I want the audience to go away with a feeling that they got to experience and discover something new, and perhaps expand their musical tastes.

Beginners guide to Omega Ensemble’s 2015 program: which concert from next year’s season would you recommend to a classical concert newbie; the adventurous concert goer; and a contemporary music-phobe?

For a classical concert newbie, you can’t really go past Mozart’s Piano and Winds (11th May) – Mozart states in a letter to his father “I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life.” For the more adventurous concert goer, Mahler’s Fourth is a must (20th July). We will be exploring the work of two Australian composers (Paul Stanhope and Mark Isaacs) alongside Mahler’s Fourth Symphony arranged for chamber Ensemble. For a contemporary music-phobe the Nutcracker (16th November), has something for everyone, from Mozart’s sublime Serenade in C minor, to Tchaikovsky’s ever popular Nutcracker arranged for a Wind Nonet plus double bass! 

Commissioning new work is a very important part of what Omega does. Tell me about those collaborations.

We see it as our way of contributing some valuable to the Australian music scene. Since 2006 we have commissioned and premiered over 24 works by Australian composers, including Elena Kats-Chernin, George Palmer, Matthew Hindson, Daniel McCallum, Luke Styles, Paul Stanhope, to name a few. 2015 sees Omega Ensemble perform its largest commission to date, a Chamber Symphony, by Mark Isaacs. I find the whole process of commissioning a work right through to the performance, a really fascinating and explorative process. I always work closely with the composer, and there are almost always unique small changes right up until the performance date. Every composer is different in their approach, and all have a unique compositional process, which makes these types of collaborations so exciting.

Playing modern music can be pretty divisive for an audience. Why are Omega so committed to championing new compositions?

I really feel when programming our season it is our duty as performers to offer our audience the most diverse range of music possible. I find there are a lot of similarities between music and food: how often do you go to a restaurant a have a 3 course meal, and absolutely love everything served to you? Programming music is a similar process, you present your three best dishes, all contrasting, and hope that your audience gets something positive out of each dish! Also if our audience is not exposed to new tastes in music, how will they ever develop their musical palettes?

Are there any composers you’d love to work with?

I have always wanted to commission a work by the composer Nico Muhly. I got the opportunity to work with him in a collaboration with the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School of Music whilst we were both students, performing his work By All Means. At the time he was working as Philip Glass’s assistant, and he has gone on to have the most incredible career, composing for soloists, ensembles and organisations including pianist Emanuel Ax & mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, Bjork, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra to name only a few. 

If you could invite any guest artist, living or dead, to play with Omega, who would it be, and what would you play?

I just recently performed Schubert’s Octet with Omega Ensemble, and listened to this recording many times with Janine Jansen, some of the most incredible playing and beautful phrasing. I would love to work with her at some stage in the future! You never know, perhaps a guest artist in 2016? Well, one can always dream!

The Omega Ensemble 2015 season is on sale now. For tickets and programs please visit their website.