Lower Town Hall, Sydney
August 17, 2018

Ensemble Apex might be a student run ensemble, barely two years old, but it’s quickly becoming one of the most exciting new groups on the Sydney scene. Based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and led by Sam Weller, the ensemble gave its first performance in 2016 and has since played with Lorde on 2DAY FM, performed at VIVID Sydney, launched a chamber music series, and delivered programs of both new music and orchestral canon masterpieces, joined by some of classical music’s hottest rising stars.

The centrepiece of Ensemble Apex’s 2018 season was a performance of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, complete with new choreography danced by a cast from Sydney Dance Company’s Pre-Professional Year, the finale of a dynamic and eclectic concert in Sydney’s Lower Town Hall.

Ensemble Apex’s remit is wide-ranging: the first half of the concert opened with a slinky reading of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (Will Nichols taking the prominent harp part) before the world premiere of Josephine Macken’s densely textured wind quintet Lacerations II, which saw the instruments’ edges frayed and distorted through live electronics, the quintet eventually dropping out completely as the digital sounds took over. The set ended with Lewis Mosley’s Liebesstück for cello and electronics, James Morley’s cello emerging seamlessly from an atmospheric hum, the work unfolding with spoken word (not always distinct through the sound) and the cello first lyrical than increasingly anxious as it sizzled into the electronics.

Ensemble Apex, Sam WellerSam Weller. Photo © Keith Saunders

A 70-piece orchestra of volunteer musicians, conducted by Weller, filled the back of the hall for the concert’s second half, leaving the raised platform that served as a stage open for the dancers. Eliza Cooper – an alumnus of both SDC’s Pre-Professional Year and Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company’s MASA Dance Program – danced her own choreography to the Dance of the Seven Veils from Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (based on the Oscar Wilde play based on the biblical story). In the opera, Salome is coaxed to dance by her lusting stepfather Herod, who promises her anything up to one half of his kingdom (though he’s super uncomfortable about the whole thing later when she demands John the Baptist’s head). With Cooper’s coloured shirts standing in for Salome’s veils, this was not Salome as seductress but a more vulnerable reading, the dancer’s movements anxious (though sinuous) and contorted, as if at the mercy of unseen forces. The orchestra handled Strauss’ primal music with precision and flair, Laura Chung’s flute lines a particular highlight.

The musicians were just as sure-footed in Bartók’s pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, the composer’s concert suite choreographed by SDC’s Nelson Earl in a visceral adaptation that saw Bartók’s three tramps and girl amalgamated into three female dancers. Charlotte Hoppe-Smith, Brielle De Thomasis and Georgie Bailey as the ‘Tramps’ lured their victims (Eugénie English as the Rake and Alexander Borg as the Boy, his army hat denoting a young soldier) into a second floor room (the door of which was conjured in mime by Toby Blome, demonstrating fine comic chops) in order to rob them. The seduction here was an intense duelling, none more so than in the case of the Mandarin (Mason Peronchik in black corset and Chinoiserie), Bartók’s chase scene imagined as a pitched erotic battle.

Ensemble ApexCharlotte Hoppe-Smith, Brielle De Thomasis, Georgie Bailey, Toby Blome and Mason Peronchik in The Miraculous Mandarin. Photo © Keith Saunders

While this was a compellingly danced and choreographed piece, the venue threw up some challenges – it’s a slightly awkward space to fit a full-scale symphony orchestra as well as a stage. Between the un-tiered seating and the Lower Town Hall’s columns, lines of sight weren’t always ideal, and any action that took place below a certain height went unseen by much of the audience.

There were a few other small glitches on the night, with the particularly resonant wooden floor amplifying even the lightest footsteps (audience members finding seats during the hushed Ravel clomped disturbingly despite their best efforts) while talking and laughter from the orchestra ‘backstage’ filtered through the space during the small ensemble numbers.

What was most remarkable, however, was the sheer enthusiasm of both performers and audience – this was a sell-out crowd of 450 – for an ambitious program showcasing Sydney’s young talent. The scale of the event and its artistic vision was impressive, but Ensemble Apex also created a vibrant, party atmosphere in which to celebrate the next generation of performers and artists. Definitely one to watch.