Above – Ensemble Offspring. Photos – Keith Saunders

I

Ensemble Offspring is one of Australia's treasures. As old as the Goldner String Quartet, but with no sign of dissolving, it has been a flagship ensemble for new music for 30 years. Under the leadership of the indomitable, passionately committed Claire Edwardes, it constantly re-invents itself, both in personnel and in the genre of pieces it gives to its audience.

For the Blackheath Chamber Music Festival Edwardes was joined by the equally passionate violinist Alexandra Osborne, the equally committed pianist Benjamin Kopp, and guest flautist Eliza Shephard. An ensemble, as composer Harry Sdraulig pointed out, with representatives from each of four sections of an orchestra, ideal for the changing colours of his all too brief sunset piece which closed the concert.

And new the music is. Apart from Piazzola's La Muette del Angel, from 1962, the oldest piece was Ross Edwards’ Ecstatic Dances. Edwardes reminded us what is blindingly obvious but routinely forgotten, that to keep music alive we must perform music by live composers, and to my mind the least interesting piece on Ensemble Offspring's program yesterday afternoon was the Piazzola. I think I'm over Piazzola.

Ross Edwards’ Ecstatic Dances were written for 2 flutes, and Osborne played the first flute part on the violin. Edwards’ music is always completely idiomatic for the instrument he writes for, and it takes a magician to make his music work on another instrument, but Osborne is one.

The concert began with two pieces by indigenous composers, both in 5/8. Brenda Gifford's Bardja is a vital, rhythmic dance, and Eric Avery's Wind of Ancestors is a gentle piece, kissed into life by violin and vibraphone. Stuart Greenbaum's Two Interludes in Space displayed some gorgeous harmonic writing that I found slightly incongruous with the desolation of space which inspired the pieces. Road Movies, by John Adams, was represented by its first movement, Relaxed, which I found about as relaxing as driving through New York at top speed to catch a plane.

And then there was a structure-free piece called Empathy, by Ivan Trevino, which gave Edwardes a chance to display her astounding virtuosity on the vibraphone, and at the end of the piece to go and sit (empathically, I presume) by Kopp at the piano.

As I mentioned, Harry Sdraulig's piece The Colours Change closed the concert. This piece, set in sunset in the Blue Mountains, was commissioned by the Festival for the whole ensemble. It only lasted 4 minutes (one buys music by the yard these days), and I would have liked it to last a lot longer in its delightful interplay of instrumental colours. How often can one say this about a first performance?

II

I have followed the Orava Quartet since their first appearance at the Bangalow Festival nine years ago. Four men, young then and still young, always nattily dressed in matching waistcoats and unmatching socks, whose mission it has been to shake the dust off traditional string quartet programming – a Haydn or Mozart, a Bartok, a Beethoven, for example – and to convince audiences that the genre can surprise. They have travelled the outer reaches of the string quartet repertoire with the curiosity, enthusiasm, and technical excellence of astronauts.

The program they presented to the Blackheath Chamber Music Festival consisted of a set of folksong arrangements, a quartet by Elena Kats-Chernin, and a set of dances by Schulhoff. All were introduced with panache and black humour by Karol Kowalik, the cellist.

The first offering was a group of two Scandinavian folksongs arranged by the Danish String Quartet. It was interesting in that, being arranged by players rather than composers, the textures were very idiomatic, but the harmonies at times lacking in direction. Nonetheless, it gave the violist, Thomas Chawner, and the second violinist, David Dalseno, their chance to bewitch.

Kats-Chernin's For Theodora consists of four movements, each suggested by four female members of a family which had suffered the bereavement of one of them. These charming character sketches are well, if simply, structured, but left me with the same feeling that much of her music does: that she has the technique to write music that more explores the range of human emotions much more than she often allows herself. Why doesn’t she do it? I'd like to hear a work of hers that doesn't settle for the pleasant repetitions she can write with her hands behind her back, but where she really lets herself go.

The Five Pieces for String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff which followed brought these comments into sharp relief. Here is a composer who goes to the limits of human experience and stays there. All the pieces are folk dances, getting ever more frantic until the final tarantella, which they played as fast as humanly possible. Bitten by a spider and dancing till you die. (“I hope you enjoy it” said Karol Kowalik drily.) This music suited to perfection the grainy, intense sound the Orava specialise in, where the emotional depth of the music is more important than the beauty of sound.

But when they had done, they had not done. They were called back for not one but two encores. The first was another tribute to folk music, this time from Poland, and the second, at last something from the standard repertoire, a movement of a Borodin quartet.

The Orava are the shape of the future of string quartets in this country. We are in good hands.

Event details

Blackheath Chamber Music Festival 2024
Day 2

Curator/Director Catherine Harker

Venue: Phillips Hall | 41 Gardiner Crescent Blackheath NSW
Dates: 19 – 21 April 2024
Bookings: www.mountainproductions.com.au

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