★★★★☆ Neat programming sees old and new meet borrowed and bluesy.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
September 5, 2016

In these days of jaded palates, programming counts, and anyone wanting to make some new musical companions while watching an old friend or two get a makeover need look no further than the enterprising Sydney-based Omega ensemble. Not that everything made sense – the connections that the bookends to this enjoyable concert had to the three central works still eludes me – but when the intrigue-factor is this high, I can’t say I cared overmuch.

Mozart’s Fantasia in F Minor, a late work originally conceived for a clockwork organ (to what, one might ask, might the greats be reduced in order to make ends meet), made an attractive opener. Essentially scored for wind quintet, string quartet and piano fill in, it points the way forward, if not exactly to Beethoven, very possibly to Schubert. Although its dark textures occasionally thickened, the Omegas gave its multiple-sections sufficient room to breathe.

Adelaide-born composer Mark Grandison’s Riffraction was one of two engaging newish sextets on the bill. Inhabiting a post-minimalist sound word, syncopated figurations in strings and piano proffered a shape-shifting bed of sound on which David Rowden’s solo clarinet was able to lay its riffs and jazzy licks. A cheerful, though tricksy piece, the players held it together well, though it would have been nice if it had let rip a little more (one of the benefits of multiple-performance opportunities). The central section was beautifully wistful, the conclusion suitably effervescent.

It was equally welcome to hear a work by the popular-cum-populist French composer Guillaume Connesson, whose Sextet made a perfect pair for the Grandison. With its minimalism-meets-rock and roll aesthetic, it’s a genuinely toe-tapping affair, crackling with rhythmic energy and warmly appealing harmonics. With excellent solo contributions from all concerned (Natsuko Yoshimoto on violin, Neil Thomson on viola, Alex Henery on bass, Matthew Bubb on oboe, Rowden on clarinet and Maria Raspopova on piano), especially in the moody central nocturne (very Sydney by night!), the Omegas latched onto its Metropolitan energy, even giving a little bit of Disney magic in places. The concluding Festivities movement with its distorted Schubertian Trout in the piano provided a frothy crowd-pleasing end to the first half.

Britten’s Sinfonietta is one of those works you almost never hear live. Too small for an orchestra, too big at ten players for most chamber concerts, it’s a brilliant first opus from a precocious 18-year-old and demands that every instrumentalist be a soloist (yet blend is equally important). As such, it drew the finest playing of the evening from the ensemble, the gossamer second movement duets on violins (Natsuko Yoshimoto and Airena Nakamura) magically ethereal. Britten would have hated to hear it, but it has its pastoral moments early on, before the modernist influences of Copland and Stravinsky show their faces in the devilish Tarantella. The Omegas entered into the spirit of the thing, enjoying its offbeat stampings and skirling melodies.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Photo by David Vagg

The main event was saved for last – Elgar’s Cello Concerto in a chamber version by British composer Iain Farringdon. As an arrangement it’s pretty darn good. The single woodwinds still capture the warmth of Elgar’s noble ideas, the string quartet offers a delicate transparency against which the solo cello can really soar. Only in the big moments where Farringdon has recourse to added trumpet, trombone and timpani does it feel a little like those times at school orchestra when you just can’t muster the proper quorum of players.

Teije Hylkema, whose day job is Principal Cello of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, was a committed soloist, his burnished tone just right for Elgar. His pacing was spot on, his slight emotional reserve well-judged (a Du Pré would come a right cropper swimming around in these orchestrational shallows). The danger of this kind of arrangement is that the listener spends all their time thinking “does this work?” instead of enjoying it for what it is. No fear of that in the powerful Adagio, where Hylkema went right to the heart of the matter offering a searching reading with bags of emotional innigkeit. Although the finale occasionally meandered (a conductor can really help here), all in all this was a most worthwhile experiment of which Omega Ensemble should be rightly proud. And a good house as well.