Above – Symphony Septet. Photo – Keith Saunders

I

After hearing two of the finest quartets in the country, who have worked together as quartets for many years it was interesting to hear seven of the best musicians in the SSO, who have worked together for years in the orchestra, come together to play chamber music.

Louise Johnson, who MC'd the Festival with the the same wicked élan that she evinced in her concert on the first day, said the musicians, her colleagues, had come from two sessions of playing the score of Harry Potter. What a delight they all felt, free from the drudgery of that, and even free from the benevolent despotism of a conductor, in playing chamber music. This was nowhere more evident than on the face of the leader, Lerida Delbridge. Her constantly changing expressions, which followed every detail of the phrases she was playing, was a pleasure to watch, and drew the audience into the magical experience of making music together.

And it was also interesting to discover that, after the new and challenging music played by Ensemble Offspring and the Orava Quartet the day before, the first piece they played, the Berwald Septet, sounded not like a relief with its familiar idiom, but remarkably anodyne. All the players played with the consummate artistry they've been using for decades in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but the music itself, varied and colourful as it is, fails to ignite. Berwald was Swedish, and I couldn’t help thinking of Ikea furniture; graceful tasteful, but unexciting.

Next, this remarkble ensemble played the Beethoven septet. Although this work, like much of Beethoven, is not loved primarily for its melodic charm, it constantly raises expectations, which it either fulfils or thwarts, and keeps the listener interested. Delbridge and clarinettist Francesco Celata vied with each other's immaculate phrasing in milking the rare moments of tunefulness; and there were moments of glory for Euan Harvey (horn), Matthew Wilkie (bassoon) and Catherine Hewgill (cello).

The ensemble loved this opportunity to play chamber music. Yet one could never quite forget that they were orchestral musicians. The tempi were metronomically accurate, with little room for rhetoric. The balance consistently favoured the horn, while Celata and Kees Boersma’ bass tried to mediate in dynamic between Harvey and the string players. But they seemed to find themselves as an ensemble more and more as the concert progressed, and by the final movements of the Beethoven were really enjoying themselves.

II

It was a privilege to be there. Simply a privilege to be there.

Such was the immediate spontaneous reaction to the final concert of the Blackheath Chamber Music Festival from every member of the audience I spoke to afterwards.

It was a historic event. The Festival's first day finished with a concert by the great Goldner Quartet, who are bowing out this year after 30 years at the pinnacle of Australian string quartets. The second day concluded with the Orava Quartet, a young and dynamic group of players widely regarded as the string quartet ready to inhabit that pinnacle when the Goldners vacate it. And for the Festival's conclusion the experience and sophistication of the Goldners joined with the verve and passion of the Oravas to create a string Octet.

They did not sit on stage as two string quartets, but interlocked the players from the two groups in one semicircle, like a small string orchestra. Perhaps they did this the better to blend the golden sound of the Goldners with the arresting sound of the Oravas. If so, it worked – the resulting sound had the virtues of both quartets combined. And the vitality of something altogether new.

There is one string octet firmly at the top of the Western canon, and they played it. Mendelssohn's amazing work, composed when he was sixteen, has been a favourite among chamber musicians ever since. Dene Olding led the ensemble, but in this work the first violin is often a soloist, so the performance was held together by the force and energy of the leader of the Orava, Daniel Kowalik.

I have never heard the work performed with such energy. Gone was the gossamer lightness often associated with this work. Instead there was all the astounding energy of the adolescent Mendelssohn, bursting out of every page. The Phillips Hall, like so many halls which a) are not architect designed, and b) don't have carpet, has a very fine acoustic for string instruments, and these players made Mendelssohn's music fill every inch of the space.

The other work on the program was one of the most interesting in the entire Festival. Harry Sdraulig, the Festival's composer in residence, wrote a string octet in 2017. It was not, thank goodness, called Wallabies jumping or desert flowers, but simply Octet for strings. Having heard and enjoyed his The Colours Change in Ensemble Offspring's concert the previous day, I was eager to hear a more substantial piece by Sdraulig. Displaying both structural coherence and real tunefulness, as well as rich textural variation, it held my attention from start to finish. Wonderful to hear Irena Morosova playing sumptuous solos, gorgeous phrasing from Dimmity Hall, and fabulous rich gestures from both cellists. The work exploited the possibilities of the double string quartet almost better than the Mendelssohn. I pronounce Harry Sdraulig as the most interesting voice in Australian composition for many years.

The Goldner Quartet, I am sure, will have a grand farewell concert in Sydney some time later this year. But the privilege was to have been here at Blackheath when they handed over their mantle, in person, to the Orava Quartet, in such a supervibrant performance. Supreme congratulations to Catherine Harker and her team for masterminding it.

Event details

Blackheath Chamber Music Festival 2024
Day 3

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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