Hedonism and High Art can co-exist. That has been true with many of my attendances at performances in the Sydney Opera House. Of course, circumstances have to blend, like a perfect mayonnaise (which is, itself both experiences), and when better than a chamber-music concert in the intimate Utzon Room?
Summer afternoon, blue sky radiant, spinnakers bulging on the Harbour, sun shining generously; and inside, a happy audience (many of them plainly friends), the colourful Utzon tapestry behind us on the western wall, and the accomplished performers of Sydney’s Omega Ensemble, decamped from their usual home at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, who celebrate their tenth anniversary season this year. This might seem a relatively short time but the achievement is substantial: over 80 performances in that period is no minor record, whatever the repertoire involved. Furthermore, there is no doubting that there have been memorable concerts over that artistic journey. Such groups “do it tough” in Australia: each performance is, to some degree, ad hoc, commonly with disparate musicians; thus, achieving the personal familiarity which is the essence of chamber-music is a perennial challenge, especially because, for stringent financial reasons, rehearsals are often limited.
The desiderata of great performances are disarmingly simple: always play in tune; always listen closely to one another; and always have a thorough sense of the structure of the piece being played. So, apart from its venue (which, incidentally has its own acoustic challenges on account of the very low ceiling), was this a celebratory experience, with festive repertoire? Rather, it was like a cool rosé, something for a relatively easy summer’s afternoon – the serious material (Mahler, Hindemith, Ligeti and some Australian commissions from Paul Stanhope and Mark Isaacs) will come later in the year, at Angel Place. It was good, though, that the program opened with something – even if an arrangement – by the under-rated Australian composer, Arthur Benjamin. This was his Oboe Concerto (he allowed that it could be played by a clarinettist) which is drawn from piano pieces by Domenico Cimarosa, and was here presented almost as a clarinet sextet with the soloist, David Rowden (Artistic Director of Omega) as more than primus inter pares. The performance rightly emphasised the lyricism of the music and in the third movement (Siciliana) rather more than that. With the strings muted, the piece became a languid nocturne which made two important things clear about Cimarosa: that (like his greater contemporary, Mozart) he was a harbinger of Romanticism, and why he was such a favourite of Catherine II of Russia and Joseph II of Austria.
Weber’s music, itself a harbinger of Wagner, must always be played with energetic élan and melodic exuberance. In the fast sections of his Clarinet Quintet in B-flat (Op. 34) the ensemble adroitly stayed on the right side of the boundary between joyousness and jocularity: that was especially true in the third (Menuetto) movement in which the Menutto itself is almost Mendelssohnian in its lightness, but the Trio inner and intense. The movement was presented with an excellent seamlessness.
I was less happy when the musicians presented “real” Mendelssohn, his String Quintet No. 2 (Op. 87, in B-flat). The problem was not a surfeit of B-flat but intonation. To me, the lead violin was a little flat all the way through. As a result, I became too aware of the composer’s overuse of decorative figuration and the repetitiveness of his ideas; the chordal sections – often emphatic – needed more attention. They sounded rather heavy, not having translucence which Mendelssohn’s music needs if it isn’t to sound trite. The most successful movement – in compositional achievement and performance attainment – was the third (Adagio e lento) which had a lovely atmosphere. Yet as the Molto vivace finale sped by, I asked myself why the composer added a second viola when he did not really make much distinction between the pair, for example by linking one viola to the violins as a melodic element and the other to the cello as the basis for the harmony. Indulgence perhaps? The result was hardly hedonism, however, any more than it was really high art.