The creation of diverse chamber music recitals now being streamed into our households is providing a highly appreciated musical experience for lovers of fine music performances. The Faces of Our Orchestras series from Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, currently being screened from Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, is delighting and exciting listeners who tune in, giving them the opportunity to be “up close and personal” with the orchestral musicians who are taking centre stage as soloists in their own right. We are hearing music rarely performed in the concert hall, and we are also enjoying a new type of intimacy with the performance and, I feel, the composer, devoid of the “greasepaint and the roar of the crowd”.

Ann Blackburn

For the Enchanted Woodwind concert, which streamed on May 4, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians Ann Blackburn (oboe), Wendy Clarke (flute) and Leigh Harrold (piano) teamed up to perform a super selection of 20th-century works for flute, oboe and piano. We can sometimes feel a slight awkwardness with the silence of the empty concert hall as musicians first enter, but here the involvement of each musician introducing us to each piece, sharing their insight and affection for the music, established a welcoming and personal connection with us, the invisible crowd.

When introducing René Gerber’s Suite for Flute, Oboe and Piano, Harrold in particular drew us into the French connection with his words of enthusiasm, warmth and authority, qualities which were then amplified in his excellent piano playing. His crescendos and accented punctuation enhanced the woodwind dynamics when fortissimo support was required, and he was central to supporting the balance and clarity of the trio in the first two dance forms Sarabande and Gavotte. The oboe was in its prime in the expressive melodies of the slower Loure, as Blackburn’s ability to produce a variety of smooth, rich tone colours was both beautiful and technically impressive. The final movement, Gigue, highlighted the accuracy and skills of Clarke, and as the excitement of the composer’s duple and triple meter interplays added energy and character, the musicians appeared to loosen up physically, projecting smiles of enjoyment at its conclusion.

Blackburn spoke to us of her admiration for Poulenc’s Sonata for Oboe and Piano, a work known for its technical difficulty. In the opening Elégie, she met those demands with apparent ease, showing a wide range of dynamics, a smooth yet haunting tone, and a lyrical shaping of motives. The Scherzo allowed the piano to be very bold and showy with its dramatic sweeping arpeggios, perhaps giving the feel of a heavy gallop rather than a lively, playful event, but the strength of this balanced duo in dynamics and rhythmic unity was impressive. Written as a dedication to Poulenc’s friend Prokofiev following his death, the final movement, Déploration, is felt to be a musical obituary. Blackburn clearly put heartfelt feeling into shaping the fragments of haunting melodies. Again, a high level of technical mastery of pitch and tone control at the extreme range on the oboe was asked for, with expression ranging from anger, passion, dejection and loss.  A final soft acceptance and spiritual resolution was beautifully realised on both instruments with diminishing piano pulse beats and short, soft oboe phrases.

English composer, accomplished instrumentalist and dancer Madeleine Dring loved Poulenc, jazz styles, Latin rhythms and vocal music for the stage. Clarke introduced Dring’s Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano, a three-movement work showing three very different styles and influences.

Allegro con brio was a spirited and bouncy walk in the sunshine. The players clearly enjoyed the theatrical staccato notes which gave the effect of a comical march. Flute and oboe shared strong leading parallel rhythmic lines against the piano’s strong pulse, before developing lines of conversation through cheeky passages of mixed meters. Andante Semplice began with a very simple, ballad piano accompaniment style and a gorgeous oboe melody entered, soul-stirring and romantic, reminiscent of the best from any movie score. The flute was able to soar with ascending lines in this balanced musical scenery. The fast and quirky Allegro Giocoso required energy and brilliance. Harrold enthusiastically supported the woodwind with strong accents, punctuations and contrasting dynamics, and a surprising and delightful episode was a double cadenza for flute and oboe leading into a robust, accelerating final section.

Not only were we given a program of refreshing and stimulating ‘new’ concert works, but the chance to connect with and appreciate the fine solo skills of our orchestral members. I hope we can hear these rarely played works again as this was an admirable, elegant and most satisfying performance.