With Artistic Director Sam Weller studying conducting in the Netherlands, it was left to lead violinist Anna Da Silva Chen to steer the excellent Ensemble Apex through their first live performance since the pandemic started a year ago. The program was aptly branded Resurrection, either for the content of the four works, Chen explained, or for the fact that two of them are seldom heard in the concert halls these days.

Anna Da Silva ChenAnna Da Silva Chen

The start of the concert, in the atmospheric basement of Sydney Town Hall, could not have been more uplifting with Chen giving a beautifully controlled and nuanced performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending. It’s a work which puts the soloist’s skills and intonation to a stiff test, but Chen’s fluid trills and hushed stratospheric high notes were spot-on – so often they can wander off into a sharp haze, but not in this case. The orchestra, led here by Amanda Chen, were similarly impeccable in tone and precision.

By way of contrast to Vaughan Williams’s lush, broad pastoral brush strokes Igor Stravinsky’s Basel Concerto showed the young ensemble at their exciting, energetic best. This 1946 work, like so many 20th-century masterpieces, was commissioned by Paul Sacher for the Basler Kammerorchester, to mark its 20th anniversary. Anna Da Silva Chen, reverting to concertmaster, led by example with a fine sense of attack in the outer Vivace and Rondo movements, while the lovely Arioso/Andante middle movement exuded the right amount of elegance and sophistication.

Australian composer Ella Macens’ 2016 work The Lake was originally commissioned for that year’s Sydney Festival, scored for recorder, baroque cello and chamber organ. Macens rearranged it for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra to perform at the 2018 National Apology for the victims of child sexual abuse. Its sense of spaciousness and spirituality – an influence of the composer’s Latvian heritage with its choral tradition – made it the perfect complement to the Lark Ascending, with Chen’s interplay with Nick McManus’s cello and Sophie Nickel’s viola a highlight. It’s a work that, like Barber’s Adagio or Pärt’s Fratres, suits a solemn occasion – it was featured in the recent Australian Bushfire Benefit Concert in London’s Royal Academy of Music – and there was a hush in the sold-out room when the final notes died away. Macens was in the audience and took a bow.

To finish this well balanced program, Ensemble Apex turned to another work which is rarely heard, in Australia at least. British composer William Walton’s output covered a gamut of styles – the witty Façade with the poetry of the outrageous Sitwells, a Coronation fanfare for George VI, film music and serious orchestral and choral works including the massive Belshazzar’s Feast. Composer Bruce Adolphe said his music created “the sense that George Gershwin and Harold Arlon met Arnold Schoenberg and Elgar and Brahms and Strauss and they’re all having a big party”.

His Sonata for Strings is a re-working of his String Quartet No 2, arranged for Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The first movement is quite different from the quartet, the rest is faithful to the original. The opening Allegro throws little solo moments around various parts of the orchestra, as if to put the ensemble’s depth of talent on display. Chen and her troops were more than equal to the task. If there was a minor falling off in the band’s tightness of execution it came in the Lento, but this was in all a terrific performance of a work which seems to have been forgotten since the ACO used to feature it in the 1990s.

Weller writes in the program notes that he, rather hopefully perhaps, given the current travel restrictions, plans to return to Australia in July for the ensemble’s next concert, Euro X, which had been slotted for their 2020 season launch. Let’s hope he does, as with Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Nielsen’s Symphony No 1 on the program it promises to live up to the “concert of epic proportions” boast in its publicity.

Supported by the City of Sydney

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