The Hourglass Ensemble is a group who have been playing together for two years, permanently comprised of Artistic Director and founder Andrew Kennedy (clarinet), Ewa Kowalski (flute) and Gregory Kinda (piano). To this grouping they add a variety of guest artists; in the case of this evening’s concert, these were mezzo-soprano Jo Burton, saxophonist Nathan Henshaw, trumpeter Andrew del Riccio and percussionist Tim Brigden. All but the singer and pianist doubled: Kennedy on bass clarinet, Kowalski on piccolo, Brigden on vibraphone and glockenspiel, while Henshaw played both tenor and soprano saxophone. A lot of timbral variety, but not an instrumental combination with an inbuilt repertoire – so Hourglass arranged four jazz standards, and more importantly, commissioned a song cycle from Sydney-based composer-writer Tim Hansen.
The concert opened with the jazz arrangements: three songs by Duke Ellington (Prelude to a Kiss, In a Sentimental Mood, and Take the A Train) and George Shearing’s Lullaby of Birdland. The wide vocal range of the Ellington ballads proved no problem for Burton, who was highly effective in the languid In a Sentimental Mood, which also featured subtle piano work (“stylings”, it used to be called) from Kinda. However, it might have been unwise to stress the Ella Fitzgerald connection to these numbers: the ease that typified singers like Ella, Sinatra and Mel Tormé in this idiom was not entirely present. It was fun, but I did get the impression this repertoire lay outside the musicians’ comfort zone.
That was certainly not the case with the main item in the first half: Chopin’s Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor. Kinda (who is Polish himself) gave a robust, dazzling performance, easily mastering the technical demands of the work. He projected the music as if in the Concert Hall rather than the small, oddly shaped Utzon Room, and I believe the acoustic contributed to a feeling that a more intimate tone might have been striven for in the Largo movement. The sonata was preceded by a charming piece for flute and piano by well-known Australian composer Sally Whitwell, Spirit of the Plains. Kowalski and Kinda’s lovely performance was especially effective in the central rhythmic passages.
The second half on the programme was made up of two Australian premieres, both commissioned by the ensemble. Nathan Lam’s Canon requires clarinet and tenor saxophone to play the same notes throughout, but with the clarinet a 5th higher in pitch and a half a beat behind the saxophone, while the piano provides a harmonic context. Although this reads like a recipe for chaos, the result (thanks to the composer’s acute ear) was quite the opposite: the canon produced real excitement early on, and a gentle rising two-note motif in the atmospheric middle section. All three musicians played with complete conviction and rhythmic acuity.
The main work of the evening was Tim Hansen’s The Sharpest Piece, a set of five songs lasting about 20 minutes, for which Hansen also wrote the words. While the individual songs are separate, they serve to unfold a single story, making the work akin to a dramatic scena along the lines of Poulenc’s La voix humaine, with a similarly unhinged protagonist. In this case, she is a Viennese wife whose husband is dominating and repressive, and who suffers from a condition whereby she believes she is made of glass and could shatter at any moment. (This is an actual medical condition, although it’s rare today.) In Hansen’s scenario, she is visiting Dr. Freud for treatment, which has to be curtailed after she pushes her husband through a glass window and kills him. So far, so expressionist! However, Hansen’s settings are far from dour: rather they have the tang of Weimar cabaret, a particular area of interest for the composer. As Kennedy pointed out in his spoken introduction, bright “glassy” sounds cleverly permeate the texture, courtesy of the piccolo, vibraphone and glockenspiel. Rhythms are reminiscent of Kurt Weill, as is the vibrant, raw sound of the wind instruments; harmonies are more contemporary, but still tonally based. In fact, American composers like William Bolcom and Paul Schoenfield come to mind – their music uses tropes from the world of early 20th-century popular music, circus and cabaret in much the same way. By musically making the protagonist a Lotte Lenya, Hansen prevents her from sounding fragile or victim-like, underlining the fact that the piece is really about the subjugation of women. “No longer terrified, vitrified: a woman once more!” she sings, after her impulsive act of murder.
Burton was entirely in her element with this work, both vocally and dramatically. Again the vocal range was wide, and Hansen made effective use of her very strong, un-operatic chest register. In fact, having heard Burton’s performance, I simply can’t imagine any other artist doing his music and text such justice. The rest of the ensemble matched her in power, expression and colour. I would describe this song cycle as a genuinely important work (it certainly received a huge ovation), and Hourglass should be delighted with the result of their commission. A fitting conclusion to a varied and highly enjoyable programme.