★★½☆☆ High calibre but workmanlike playing makes for a threadbare experience.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place
November 16, 2015

Expecting more from a concert than just music might sound a bit greedy, but I’m clearly not alone. The appetites of contemporary audiences, desensitised by our hyperlinked society to the relatively passive experience of the traditional concert paradigm, are increasingly hungry for feats of theatrical splendour or multi-media engagement when they step out for a night at the concert hall. Whether its acrobatic circus antics such as Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s French Baroque programme in July, cinematic projections such as Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concert presentation of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, or choreographic collaborations such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s recent partnership with Sydney Dance Company, reimagining the framework of the concert format has proven to be a generous tactic for bolstering the ever dwindling number of classical concertgoers.

Or perhaps it’s all just gimmickry, superficial sparkle that bludgeons the intimacy and refinement of a classical performance with unnecessary razzamatazz? Of course this is a matter of opinion, but the art of crafting a classical programme that draws an audience in on both a visceral and intellectual level has always been a crucial consideration for a successfully constructed evening of music. Offering some narrative thread, some galvanising theme no matter how small, which guides a listener on a journey across multiple works can deliver a hugely rewarding insight and fuse repertoire spanning centuries into a cohesive whole. Failing to do so can make for a rather threadbare experience, as was the case yesterday evening at the final concert of Omega Ensemble’s 2015 season, The Nutcracker.

As they have shown time and time again over the past ten years, this chamber group boasts some seriously talented performers. Artistic Director David Rowden has placed the calibre of the musicians he engages at the top of his priorities, and thus the execution of the Omega Ensemble’s performances is always superb. Carl Nielsen’s Serenata in Vano, with its serpentine melodies that curl in spooling threads over a landscape of earthy, pastoral modality was given a gentle, sensitive rendering, with an affable warmth.

Mozart’s Wind Serenade in C minor was a more robust affair, with opportunities for all eight performers to strut through this piece’s ample solos. Particularly charismatic was oboist Celia Craig, whose rich, syrupy tone and crisp articulation was irresitibly moreish.

With 11 performers onstage for the evening’s final piece, an abridged, rearranged suite from Tchaikovsky’s beloved bon-bon ballet The Nutcracker, the scale of this ensemble was perilously close to the upper limit for an unconducted group. However the solidity of this account was unanimous throughout, even in the race to the finish accelerando at the conclusion of the Russian and Chinese Dances. This arrangement isn’t always the most flattering, with occasional moments of awkward idiosyncrasy, and with an absence of a celeste or harp there was a conspicuous lack of any sugar plum fairies or waltzing flowers, but the lustre and finesse of this performance was no less accomplished.

But arguably, from an ensemble as established and experienced as this, a high level of polish is the least we should expect. This was, without question, proficient, highly accurate playing, but all too often lacking that ineffable electricity that elevates a good performance to one of transformative power. Chamber music relies on a level of almost telepathic communication that should be written across the faces of the players, offering a window for the audience to share that emotional searching that is so central to a great performance. By placing the repertoire so starkly in the spotlight, without any extra-musical or narrative engagement, it places an even greater weight on the need for a truly exhilarating display, bristling with personality and flair. Music making should never be perfunctory or unremarkable and sadly this was a workmanlike concert that often fell into these two categories.

Omega Ensemble‘s 2016 season is on sale now.