There was plenty of hype about the Omega Ensemble’s American Masters, not simply because its centrepiece was a new work by rock star US composer Nico Muhly, but also because it kicks off something of an unofficial Muhly festival in Australia, with the composer’s commission for the Gondwana World Choral Festival coming up in a week or so and a violin concerto for Pekka Kuusisto and the Australian Chamber Orchestra set to be unveiled later in the year.
Brett Brown, Gordon Hamilton and the Omega Ensemble in American Masters. Photo: supplied
The Omega Ensemble delivered the goods and more, however, presenting a beautifully crafted program – featuring repertoire from the group’s upcoming album for ABC Classic – that put Muhly’s new piece into context, weaving a tapestry of music by composers who influenced him, including Philip Glass (for whom he worked for eight years), John Adams (whose music he grew up listening to), and – at a remove – Steve Reich, Anton Webern and Renaissance composers Thomas Weelkes and William Byrd.
The concert opened with a spell-binding performance of two of Philip Glass’s Études for Piano by Sally Whitwell. Whitwell is Australia’s Glass interpreter par excellence – winning an Aria for her Glass album Mad Rush in 2011 and giving the world premiere of the 18th Étude at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2013 before going on to make a recording of the complete set, which garnered a five-star review from Limelight’s Ben Wilkie – and this performance gave us a taste of why. Whitwell brought a hypnotic lyricism to the gently undulating opening figure of Étude No 2, before additions to the texture – the emphatic bass entry, the chiming high register – sent thrills through the audience. The trance remained unbroken as she launched into the more dramatic Étude No 11, from Book 2 of the set, which in Glass’s words, “suggest new adventures in harmony and structure”. As in the first Étude, Whitwell drew out a clear emotional architecture from Glass’s music, in compelling descending bass lines and simmering final notes.
The energy ratcheted up another notch when Omega’s Alexandra Osborne brought her clean, bright violin sound to the obsessively repeating figures of Glass’ Sonata for Violin and Piano, driven with rollicking energy by Whitwell’s piano, who dispatched the music’s biting accents and hints of ragtime with visible joy. Osborne’s sound darkened for the second movement, bringing to it a romantic vibrato, before she and Whitwell gave a swaggering account of the Sonata’s motoring finale.
Rounding out the program’s first half was John Adams’ 1978 hit Shaker Loops, in its original string septet scoring, named for the tape loops of the 50s and 60s (and a pun on the name of the American religious group). Under the precise baton of Gordon Hamilton, the Omega strings gave a fizzing, effervescent performance that managed to simultaneously capture the work’s meditative stasis and its buzzing, edge-of-your-seat urgency.
The concert’s second half, which featured larger instrumental forces led by Hamilton, was all Muhly, opening with By All Means, composed in 2004 as a response to Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments of 70 years prior (and modelled, more or less, on the same instrumental line-up), in which elements of Webern’s serialism cross-pollinate with the motet writing of Thomas Weelkes – a call back to Muhly’s childhood singing in a Rhode Island church choir. The music is immediately engaging – the opening attack, giving way to tranquil viola foreshadowed stinging accents to come – with Renaissance polyphony emerging woozily from the Webernian melange. The more recent No Uncertain Terms, commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 2017 and dedicated to Steve Reich, also draws on music of the past, weaving fragments from William Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui into a work that begins with three bars of direct quote from Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. It soon swerves off into music of Reichian momentum that consciously acknowledges a debt to the senior composer, and builds in glittering textures that saw Whitwell and Clemens Leske climb from piano to celeste, and percussionist Mark Robinson ascend from vibraphone to glockenspiel.
The vibraphone gave an otherworldly edge to the expectant ticking shot through Muhly’s new setting of Egyptian-Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s Two Young Men, 23 to 24 Years Old. The new work, Unexpected News, was commissioned (like Gerard Brophy’s setting of Whitman’s We Two Boys Together Clinging, which premiered last year) by Mark Wakely, in celebration of the life of his late partner, arts patron Steven Alward, and it sets Cavafy’s poem (in a translation by Daniel Mendelssohn) about a young man waiting for hours in a café for his friend. Sung with clarity and presence by baritone Brett Brown, Muhly’s feverish setting charts the decaying mood of the poem’s subject from gently euphoric anticipation to anxious fatigue written in rumbling trombone, before he lingers obsessively over the exquisite moment “But when he saw his friend come in”, Brown repeating – almost caressing – the words as if in disbelief. There was a restless magic to the music that accompanies the revelation of the friend’s financial windfall (a game of cards), which allows the pair to take a bedroom in “a house of vice” before a final (if not entirely unqualified) peace descends on the poem’s last line, “happy, they gave themselves to love.”
Having come pretty much straight from the studio, the Omega Ensemble musicians were on point throughout, deftly delivering not just on the notes (which were impeccable) but also the diverse, and often fervid, moods required by the music. With such taut, polished performances and smart programming, American Masters more than lived up to the hype.