Review / Concerto full of colour, urgency and mischief

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Meriel Owen on harp
THIS impeccably programmed recital staged at the National Portrait Gallery alongside the new exhibition of portrait commissions, “20/20”, was a series of musical “portraits” of the bassoon, the harp and the clarinet.

For as musical curator, Matthew Hindson, explained to those present, a concerto essentially served to highlight a solo instrument or instruments, with the backing of orchestral musicians, in this case the Omega String Ensemble.

The “Australian series” must be considered one of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s most successful initiatives, one which will be repeated in 2019, in showcasing new Australian music, with last night’s featuring two world premieres of works commissioned from Australian composers by the CSO itself.

First up was “Airbender for bassoon and string quartet”, by Holly Harrison, who was present on this occasion to talk about the work briefly, as were the other two composers.

The audience was asked to view the bassoon as the “dark horse” of instruments, but there was nothing obscure about star soloist Matthew Kneale, who teased every bit of colour from his chosen instrument in an exciting, urgent performance.

After a solo opening, the Omega Strings came in to provide the driving rhythms to (largely) a dancing dialogue between strings and bassoon, which eventually slowed momentarily before Harrison’s jazz-like inclinations revealed themselves in a lively exchange between the bassoon and violins.

This composer has repeatedly proved wrong the old cliché that there is no humour in music with her mischievous, quirky experiments and the musical conversation turned to what sounded like a dialogue of ships horns sounding in a fog, before returning to the energetic, driving rhythms which characterised the composition.

The world premiere performance of Stuart Greenbaum’s composition “Tide Moon Earth Sun – Concerto for Harp and Strings” was a total change of pace.

Written specifically for Canberra-raised harpist Meriel Owen (sadly living in Tasmania now) and the Omega Ensemble, the connection between the natural elements was to the fore, inspired by lyrics from a Greenbaum opera that read:

“The tide and the moon/The moon and the earth/The earth and the sun/are tied at their birth.”

It began in a quiet, reflective way, with intermittent phrasing, then the strings came in providing colour in a descending melody.

The second part of this this 23-minute composition fell into a deep, contemplative mood before changing to a dancing rhythm, which gave Owen full scope to reveal her superb technique and to fulfil the work’s central metaphor of connectivity between the instruments.

Hindson kept the most accessible work for last, Cyrus Meurant’s 2017 work “Concertino for clarinet and string quartet”. Composed without conventional movement breaks, there was nonetheless a sense of two parts, with clarinet soloist David Rowden opening in a sorrowful vein which was to prevail throughout, rising to a piercing expression of melancholy as the strings came in.

A seamless transition into a different mood saw Rowden and the quartet pick up positivity and pace before the melancholy theme asserted itself again, this time with the biting clarinet leading to a well-resolved ending to both the work and an intriguing concert.

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Helen Musa
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