The Australian Ensemble has unveiled its 2021 season, which celebrates the ensemble’s core members – several of whom are marking significant milestones. Flautist Geoffrey Collins, who first performed with the group in 1980 and joined the ensemble officially in 1983, is stepping into a new position as Emeritus Artist, the ensemble has announced, while violinist Dene Olding celebrates his 40th year with the group.

Australia EnsembleThe Australia Ensemble

The season also marks a return to (almost) business as usual for the band, in residence at the University of New South Wales, after what Artistic Advisor Paul Stanhope describes as a “discombobulating” 2020.

“As for many in the performing arts, the wrecking-ball that has been COVID-19 presented considerable challenges especially as two of our members are based in Melbourne and one in Adelaide!” he tells Limelight. “Like many others in the performing arts, we sought opportunities to present digital concerts and recordings. UNSW was proactive in securing the Sir John Clancy Auditorium for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall performances, and members of the Australia Ensemble UNSW were able to present some programs in this format. The members of the ensemble also contributed to workshops and masterclasses with young musicians and adapted to the restrictions with great grace and flexibility. And I have to say our audience were amazingly generous, with many donating back their subscriptions to the ensemble. That was really heart-warming.”

While the ensemble is returning to live performance in 2021, there will be a few changes due to the pandemic. “We are offering a delayed start to the year with a five-concert series (rather than the usual six) and given the instability of travel and restrictions due to the virus, this gives us a much better chance of being able to present the season safely,” Stanhope says. “We also wanted to celebrate the core members of the ensemble, so most of the programs centre around the strengths of individual players and also the sense of collective understanding built up over many years.”

“We’ve tried to save some of the best morsels from the abandoned 2020 season and brought them forward for this year. Pieces such as the haunting Brahms Horn Trio, the Schumann Piano Quartet and the dramatic, stormy Shostakovich Piano Quintet – a real favourite of the ensemble,” he says. “Australia Ensemble UNSW programs also feature lesser-known composers, and we are delighted to be introducing the audience to works by Mélanie Bonis and Lili Boulanger – two composing women whose works were once forgotten, but now are seeing a great revival.”

The season opens in April with Dream Tracks, named for the 1992 Sculthorpe work, which the ensemble plays alongside music by Grainger, Françaix and Weber. In May the Australia Ensemble revisits its 2016 commission from Australian composer Gordon Kerry, while the music lasts, alongside French composer Mélanie Bonis’ fin de siècle Suite en Trio, Op. 59, and music by Osvaldo Golijov and Fauré.

The August concert opens with the Australia Ensemble’s first ever – and most performed – commission, Carl Vine’s Café Concertino, from 1984, on a program with two works by Lili Boulanger, Schumann’s Opus 47 Piano Quartet and American composer Kevin Puts’ And Legions Will Rise.

Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon will join music by Beethoven, Bartók and Brahms in September while the final concert for the year, in October, will feature a brand new commission by Australian composer Holly Harrison, Slipstream. “As always, new works are a cornerstone of the Australia Ensemble UNSW’s mission and I’m genuinely excited about the new piece by Holly Harrison which will feature in our final program for the year,” Stanhope says. “In short, we’ve retained the sense of variety and contrast for which our programs have become well known.”

Guest artists performing with the Australia Ensemble this year include bassoonist Andrew Barnes, violinist Lerida Delbridge, horn player Robert Johnson, double bassist Andrew Meisel, flautist Lisa Osmialowski, percussionist Alison Pratt and oboist Shefali Pryor.

“In many ways, 2021 is a returning to core values,” says Stanhope. “After such an absence, being able to perform again as an ensemble will be a really joyful experience, and we hope the audience picks up on this vibe!”

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