Gordon Darling Hall, National Portrait Gallery
October 25, 2018

In August 2015, The Observer reported fears that the bassoon had become an “endangered species”, noting that “[a] campaign called Save the Bassoon now aims to remind the public of the importance of this engaging member of the woodwind section and to encourage young musicians to take it up.”

With the instrument in the mind of young Australian composer, Holly Harrison, and in the hands of brilliant bassoonist, Matthew Kneale (described by Matthew Hindson as the “rock-god of the bassoon”), its future is rock-solid safe.

Far from being buried in the woodwind section, the bassoon goes well and truly front and centre in Harrison’s high-energy Airbender for bassoon and string quartet.  The composer, who plays drums and percussion in the improvised rock duo Tabua-Harrison, says her piece “imagines the bassoon as a type of sonic airbender, conjuring up an array of sounds driven by air! … [and] is further inspired by slap bass solos, prog-rock guitar ‘shredding’, and bluegrass sonorities.”

Giving the work its world premiere performance, Kneale rose to the challenge fearlessly, delivering all the work’s in-built qualities.  He built boundless energy through its driving rhythms, raced along the keys with seemingly effortless virtuosity, and showcased his instrument’s amazing agility and incredible range.  The quartet’s part, played here by the Omega Ensemble, is quite understated, giving the bassoon free rein, but pouring a solid foundation, maintaining the rhythms for Kneale’s musical gymnastics.

Harrison herself was pleased with the result, and, for the audience, there was almost the collective wiping of a sweating brow as Hindson, the series’ curator, introduced the next composer, Stuart Greenbaum, and the world premiere of his major piece, Tide Moon Earth Sun – Concerto for harp and strings.

Commissioned by the CSO for the Australian Series, and written for harpist, Meriel Owen and Omega Ensemble, who played the work here, the title derives from Ross Baglin’s libretto for Greenbaum’s opera, The Parrot Factory:

The tide and the moon,
The moon and the earth,
The earth and the sun
Are tied at their birth.

In a single movement of around 23 minutes, and in total contrast to Airbender, the harp began as if floating in space, introducing warm, gentle strings.  Owen’s beautiful touch created as much music in the spaces between the notes as in the notes themselves.  Omega, augmented by its double bass for this work, gave beautiful balance and support to the harp, slowly building the piece through its several sections and fabulous harmonies, until it moved along to a calm rhythm, finally resolving in just the hint of a flourish.

Almost not wanting the piece to finish, the audience gave it, its composer, and the performers a very warm reception, as, once again, Hindson returned to introduce the next composer, Cyrus Meurant, and his work, written only last year, Concertino for clarinet and string quartet.

Omega Ensemble and clarinettist, David Rowden, commissioned the work and mounted the performance space here.  Rowden began the single movement work slowly and softly, much as Owen did in Tide Moon Earth Sun, introducing muted string quartet for a quiet, reflective section, bringing thoughts of simplicity and serenity.

Then, seamlessly through a transition into the second section, the ensemble, once again filled out the sound thoughtfully, but with the soloist very much in mind.  As, together, they built the second section through increasingly complex rhythms and harmonies, the audience seemed to lean further and further forward until, in the words of the composer, “the ensemble unites in resolute coda.”

This was a superb performance with Rowden’s playing smooth and controlled, yielding some of the warmest tones I have heard from the clarinet, all complemented by a beautifully balanced Omega Ensemble.

The brilliant musicianship and engaging works throughout this concert were enhanced even more by the performance space.  Well, it’s not actually a performance space – it is the entrance foyer to the National Portrait Gallery – but its design, perhaps accidentally, has yielded a marvellous acoustic for music (not so much for spoken voice, even amplified).  It has just the right amount of reverberation, which all the musicians used in this performance to great effect.

All the ingredients blended perfectly for a musically very satisfying performance.


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine