Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
June 25, 2018

Sydney new music group Ensemble Offspring’s second concert in the Sydney Opera House’s Crescendo Series – following February’s Hark the Machine in February – saw EO stripped back to two musicians: percussionist Claire Edwardes, the ensemble’s Artistic Director, and clarinettist Georgina Oakes, the first ever Associate Artist appointed as part of EO’s mentoring program, the Hatched Academy. But between the pair, Beginnings to New Ends – solo and duo works spanning works by elder statesmen to rising stars – was an outsized concert that had the Utzon Room bursting at the seams.

Oakes has returned to Australia after ten years in Europe, where she studied in Paris, Vienna and Freiburg – with the likes of Ernst Ottensamer and Jörg Widmann – performing with groups from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to Ensemble InterContemporain. Her research in Austria, however, focussed on the late Pierre Boulez’s clarinet concerto Domaines, the earlier solo version of which she performed in this concert. An open form work, Domaines consists of six sections containing cells or fragments – whose playing order is chosen at the performer’s discretion – which Oakes delivered from six different positions around the audience. Introducing the work, Oakes cited a teacher in Paris likening the music to cats – creeping and pouncing – and there was certainly a feline flexibility to her sound as she traversed lithe, angular gestures, warbling timbral effects, purring multiphonics and growling flutter-tonguing.

Oakes brought toe-tapping energy to Australian composer Michael Smetanin’s pumping 1984 work Ladder of Escape for nine bass clarinets – all but one pre-recorded – which was paired on the program with a more recent piece by the composer, Temple from 2015, performed in Australia for the first time in this concert. Edwardes dispatched the work – written for five temple blocks, Edwardes contributing her own cadenza – with virtuosic precision, the polyrhythms clean and precise while fast tremolos, produced with sticks rattling inside the blocks, created haunting sustains – a simple melody underpinned by a drone on the lowest block.

The other more senior composer on the program was Christopher Fox, whose 1983 Reeling for “very high clarinet and hi-hat” has been an EO favourite, performed frequently by Edwardes and Jason Noble. Oakes handled the perilous clarinet line – the work is influenced by both Irish traditional music and bebop – with aplomb, but this is a work that rewards brash over-confidence and there was a sense that Oakes was ever so slightly on the back foot, with Edwardes driving from the hi-hat.

The world premiere on the program was Electors of Middlemarch, written for Edwardes in 2017 by rising star composer Elizabeth Younan, who has a new work on Musica Viva’s International Concert Season this year – which will be premiered by Joyce Yang in July – and has been commissioned to write a new work for EO flautist Lamorna Nightingale through the ensemble’s “Noisy Women” commissioning project. Taking text from Mr Brooke’s bumbling speech in Chapter 51 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch – delivered by Edwardes in tandem with her percussion – this was complex, fragmenting work that saw rhythms and speech disintegrate in a heroic performance by Edwardes, halting speech and jittery tension building across the percussion until punctuated by bass drum in an anxious finale.

The concert opened with Colour Burst, a 2017 work by another rising star, Ella Macens, who – like Younan – was part of the inaugural cohort of the Sydney Conservatorium’s Composing Women program. Inspired by the sound world of Mariachi street performers in the Mexican city of Guanajuato, Colour Burst is a wonderfully bold, swaggering work, Edwardes beating out free-wheeling Mariachi rhythms on temple blocks, drums, cowbell and cymbals. They say that if the music is too loud, you’re too old – and that may well be the case – but the outdoor exuberance of Colour Burst felt overwhelming in the confined Utzon Room. This is a work that would sit much more comfortably in a larger space.

In contrast, however, British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova’s crystalline Frozen River Flows – inspired by the phenomenon of a flowing river with a frozen crust – fit the space perfectly, Oakes weaving clean clarinet lines over Edwardes’ glittering vibraphone.

Ensemble Offspring never fails to deliver exciting programs and vibrant performances, and while the more boisterous works on the program would have benefited from the musical leg-room of a larger venue, Beginnings to New Ends was no exception.