Monday, 20 February 2017

ASQ and Arcadia a perfect match - Review


Festivals are the perfect opportunity for matchmaking and Musica Viva and the Perth International Arts Festival got it right when they paired Arcadia Winds with the Australian String Quartet. Arcadia Winds are part of Musica Viva’s new Future Makers artist development program and although they are a relatively young ensemble the collaboration felt like a meeting of equals.

 
ASQ and Arcadia at Winthrop Hall (© Appleby)

Their second of two concerts held at the University of WA attracted a good-sized audience who listened in rapt silence for a hefty 100 minutes (without interval). The program featured contemporary repertoire often considered challenging for audience members. Mozart’s Flute Quartet was the only work on the program written more than 40 years ago and made a delightful concert opener with flautist Kiran Phatak working in deft, graceful unity with the string trio. Phatak’s richly varied tonal hues in the Adagio over the delicate pizzicato accompaniment created an especially serene intimacy.

Roger Smalley is well-known to Perth audiences but his Toccata - composed at the end of his career in 2008 - was new. Written for flute, oboe and quartet, the short work opened with a quaver pattern of descending thirds followed by a long note. The motive developed into a climax and then recurred in different configurations, including as a canon and in an energetic syncopated pattern. It was a snapshot of Smalley’s taut, precise craftsmanship performed by an ensemble well-versed in modernist rhetoric.

German composer Jörg Widmann drew on Schubert’s Octet as the central reference point for his Oktett, which formed the centrepiece of the concert. The performers (string quartet plus clarinet, horn, bassoon and string bass) gave an insightful introduction to harmonics, glissandi and other extended techniques before demonstrating musically the command they have over this repertoire with a seamless blend of Schubertian romanticism with a 21st century sound world. The opening unison chords (referencing Schubert’s unison opening) were restated with increasing dissonance growing in volume to distortion before subsiding.  The ensemble captured Widmann’s mighty orchestral swells with the clarinet or violin riding high above. The horn calls, wails and snap pizzicato of the Menuetto were delivered with almost Mahlerian parody while the haunting microtones of Lied ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) were passed note by note between horn, violin and clarinet like molten wax.

 By now it was apparent that the silky-toned Arcadia could make even the most avant-garde sounds enticing. Both ensembles eased in and out of phrases with precision and impeccable intonation – particularly impressive given the extreme summer weather and the extended techniques involved.

The premiere of Perth composer Lachlan Skipworth’s wind quintet Echoes and Lines was much anticipated by locals. Skipworth (recently awarded the Paul Lowin prize) studied with both Smalley and Widmann, creating a serendipitous link between the repertoire. Echoes and Lines presented musical ideas in nine short miniatures which was something of a departure for Skipworth who tends to work with long lines. Each miniature explored a different technique including a canon, cross-rhythms, fast unison staccatos, repetition and echoes.

Despite of perhaps because of the simplicity of the ideas, the musical result was often intense; each miniature was minutely crafted for maximum flavour. Skipworth’s carefully placed phrase endings – either pointed and brief or wound down to niente - created a sense of pause and breathing room. The silence between each movement became a work of art itself, the last note echoing through the hall, then the decay of sound, followed by an absorbed silence while the memory of the idea lingered like a fragrance.

The ASQ returned to the stage with the addition of string bass player Stephen Newton for Françaix’s Dixtuor (Dectet). Folksy string playing and effervescent winds were offset by a vigorous bass line from Newton. The gentle dovetailing of phrases in the Andante was followed by a spirited finale bringing the concert to a close.

After nearly two hours of music making of great refinement and camaraderie it was clear that this was a youthful supergroup of unfettered imagination and immense control; a perfect match.

This review first published in Limelight Magazine Feb 2017.

The Perth Festival continues for two more weeks. Eighth Blackbird bring their fire to an extraordinary contemporary music program tonight at the Perth Concert Hall. Come early for the Preconcert Talk and stay afterwards for the Meet the Artists interview presented by yours truly!

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