★★★★½ Plenty of highpoints as AWO heads south for chamber festival.

Robertson Hotel, Robertson
November 14, 2015

The Australian World Orchestra has really been living up to its name recently. Fresh off the plane from a tour of India, members of the country’s elite orchestra joined other acclaimed Aussie musicians to perform intimate chamber music in a festival of two concerts in Robertson, a gem of a town nestled in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands. An hour and a half’s drive from Sydney, Robertson is known for its high annual rainfall and verdant countryside, and naturally proved an idyllic (though wet) locale for the first of two concerts as part of the annual festival.

This year’s festival was held at the Robertson Hotel. The stately manor’s warm and cosy atmosphere was perfect for enjoying the stunning selection of music, curated by Saxophonist and Artistic Director Christina Leonard. Focusing on music produced before and during the First World War (though not explicitly referencing the war), Leonard’s programme included some well-known favourites, plus lesser-known works of Ysaÿe and Dohnányi. Also included were three works by contemporary Australian composer and Robertson resident, Andrew Ford.

To begin, violinist Marina Marsden, cellist Patrick Murphy and 2015 ARIA award-winning pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska took to the stage to perform Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor of 1914. Managing the work’s frequent changes in temperament and harmony, the trio gave a full-bodied and energetic reading. Though not the fault of the players, the room’s intimate acoustic was at times unkind to the piano, which sometimes came off heavily, smudging the more delicate moments of the work. Thankfully balance wasn’t a problem for the rest of the concert, and the boldness of this first performance (particularly in the second movement) made for an excellent concert opener.

Andrew Ford’s setting of traditional Northumbrian ballad Maa Bonny Lad followed. With hauntingly beautiful harmonics, slowly shifting chords and drones, and a delightful series of delicate pizzicati, Ford’s arrangement exuded an aura of calm in the intimate space of the hotel’s salon. Substituting a soprano saxophone (performed by Christina Leonard) for the vocal part, the setting took on a slow and breathy ethereality. It was difficult really not to be moved by its transfixing and somewhat sorrowful beauty. And as Leonard reminded the audience, war is a time when many a ‘bonny lad and lady’ fail to return home.

To complete the first half, a trio made up of two violins (New York-resident Asmira Woodward-Page and Marina Marsden) and viola (SSO fellow Elizabeth Woolnough) performed the first movement of Belgian Eugene Ysaÿe’s Le Londres. Echoing some of the turbulence and fluidity of the Ravel Trio, Ysaÿe’s work received a dynamic and rich performance, with Woodward-Page as leader having a particularly palpable presence.

Rachmaninov’s lyrical and well-loved Vocalise in its arrangement for piano and cello served as a delicate palate cleanser following interval. Dedicated by Leonard to the victims of the Paris attacks perpetrated earlier that day, the work took on a different, more mournful spirit. The gorgeous simplicity of Rachmaninov’s melody writing was rendered beautifully through Murphy’s relaxed though deftly controlled manner, which was accompanied with equal sensitivity by Cislowska at the piano.

Forming something of a centrepiece in the evening’s concert, Hungarian Erno Dohnányi’s monumental Piano Quintet of 1914 was given a sterling performance by Woodward-Page, Marsden, Woolnough and Murphy, with Tamara-Anna Cislowska again returning to the piano. Dohnányi’s Quintet is a highly accomplished composition technically and dramatically, and with its Brahmsian sense of structure and thematic development, makes for fascinating listening. The AWO quintet’s performance was balanced and full, with delightful capricious episodes in the second movement contrasted with a profound gravity in the third.

Two works by Ford closed the programme. The first, an excerpt from his song cycle, Learning to Howl, made for another gentle and lilting folk-like sojourn. The work, The Birthday of my Life, sets a poem by Christina Rossetti, and in this arrangement by Leonard the string quartet served as accompanists to the clarinet’s melody (performed by the SSO’s Frank Celata), with a newly added melodic line (the tune to Scarborough Fare) provided by Leonard on soprano saxophone.

Despite the gravity suggested by the concert’s title (a chilling reminder of the conflict and fear following recent world events), the night ended on a humorous note. Ford’s Scherzo Perpetuo for string quartet accompanied a charming silent film, shot in 1924, featuring two sculptors fashioning a gradually changing face out of clay. As the film bustled along, Ford’s clever quartet accompaniment bounced and turned like a potter’s wheel, mirroring the expressions and nationalities of the gradually changing clay face. The AWO quartet captured the score’s energy perfectly, with the performance receiving laughs and cheers from an audience clearly appreciative of a fantastic evening’s music making.