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Sounds Fantastique

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A Sunday afternoon in Sydney, and we are spoilt for choice. Orchestra Romantique is playing Berlioz and Weber, while over at the Conservatorium it’s the music of Elena Kats-Chernin. The classical music doomsayers would predict an audience stretched to the limit. Can’t tell you how it was at the Con, but Paddington Town Hall was busy and full, with a nice cross-section of ages from anklebiters to white wizards.

Ever since I saw Nicholas Carter conducting a Mozart in the City concert I’ve been keen to see what he does with bigger forces. He’s a youngster, by conducting standards, and just about to enter the dreaded grey zone — that period when you are too old to be a ‘young artist’ and too young to have gravitas. I suspect it’s also a period which coincides with mortgages, small children and other major life expenditures. It’s good to see from his bio that he has scored an assistant conductor spot at Hamburg Opera (with compatriot Simone Young). Well, good for him. Not so good for Sydney, which loses a good one.

Orchestra Romantique is an impressive vote of confidence in the talent of Nicholas Carter. A full orchestra — quadruple wind, two harps, serpent and ophicleide — of professionals have given up two weekends to play more music, and they all looked thrilled to be there. As for the music, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a damn fine stab at two fiendish (in every sense of the word) works, with a curio thrown in for good measure.

Nick Byrne (who is one of the driving forces behind Orchestra Romantique) found an ophicleide in the Sydney Symphony crypt, presumably the same one that Cliff Goodchild (Paul’s dad) had. Cliff told me he got it from James Waldersee, and that it had ‘Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 1910’ engraved on it. (Is it the same one, Nick?) Anyway, having found the ophicleide, the obvious next step for Nick was to find a way to get it back on the stage. This concert featured Jules Dermersseman’s Introduction and Polonaise for Ophicleide and Orchestra, with Nick Byrne as soloist.

It was a very likeable but – I have to admit – not totally convincing work. Nick Byrne produced a lovely, sweet sound, like a cross between a French horn and a bassoon in character, but when the score called for virtuosic flourishes the notes got a bit lost. I suspect the real problem is that the ophicleide is not really a soloistic instrument – it doesn’t have the volume or the extremes of range of its successors so, like some Australian fauna, it has been superseded by its more in-your-face cousins, like the saxaphone, tuba and cane toad. Where it does sound great is in the timbral mix of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz keeps his ophicleides and serpents in reserve till the chilling final movements, but when he uses them they add a whole new colour .

As for the performance, I’m not going to pick it apart or make comparisons with other orchestras. Apart from anything else, Paddington Town Hall is a very different space to, say, the Opera House Concert Hall. What I will say is that Nick Carter brought it all together, in all its complexity, with a hugely impressive flair, allowing this band of fine musicians to play their hearts out. The violins in particular had a heavy load to carry — only seven desks versus all those brass. Kristian Winther is a fine leader, and their chords in the ‘March to the Scaffold’ had a wonderful, thick bloom to them. They also took on the overture, Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon with fearless gusto — and there is plenty to fear in there. It sounded great.

Meanwhile, at the back of the hall the brass and wind looked and sounded like they were having a fun time. The period trumpets and trombones, combined with ophis and serpent, introduced a gritty, rumbly texture to the grand welter of sound, like the throaty roar of an old sports car. And as the daughter of a bassoon player, I can confirm that every single note of that dastardly solo was there, played by Andrew Barnes and his crack team with almost gleeful virtuosity.

Congratulations to all, and let’s hope that this brave new orchestra can continue to build on its encouraging beginnings. And can I put in a request? Loved the ophicleide, loved the serpent. Next time, can you dig up a sarrusophone?

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Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

9 thoughts on “Sounds Fantastique

  1. Verbruggen Hall was close to full. It was a rare event to have a programme of the work of one composer – I wish it could be done more often. It’s a bit like reading the collected essays or poems of a notable writer. Much more satisfying than a compilation. This was a great chance to hear a cross section of Elena’s work.
    The bassoon concerto a new work for Kim Walker, was one work I want to hear again. The programme included three of Elena’s Reinventions originally written for Gen Lacey and her recorders but this time with bassoon, flute and clarinet respectively. One characteristic of Elena’s music is, for me, its versatility and her ability to rework and reinvent a piece for a different lineup.
    This version was interesting but it made me want to go back to the original – which I will do as soon as I can trackdown a recording.
    Elena’s music is, to me, always enjoyable. And this was one of the money pleasurable concerts I have been to in quite a while.
    But it is a pity we can’t be in two places at once.

    • Ken N,
      If you are going to revisit Elena Kats-Chernin’s Reinventions I suggest you also check out Genevieve Lacey’s recording with the Flinders Quartet. They work beautifully for this ensemble. The CD is available from iTunes: http://bit.ly/fUpRjq . Enjoy.

      • Thank you JohnofOz – I didn’t know it was on iTunes. But I might go for the hard copy anyway.

    • Agreed. I do wish I could clone myself sometimes. And agreed about having a full program of one composer. I remember hearing four Sculthorpe quartets in one go, at Kangaroo Valley a couple of years ago, and it is so satisfying to immerse oneself in one person’s sound world. I found myself hearing all sorts of things I’d never heard before.
      We do it for Beethoven and Mahler. Maybe we should do it more for live composers too.

  2. “White wizards”. Now that is a term I like. I will accept accusations of plagiarism if, perchance, I should use it (probably in reference to myself) without appropriate attribution.

    Seriously though, what is it with trombonists? Perhaps it is all that time waiting, waiting, waiting, for their entries. masterworks such as Beethoven’s Fifth give them plenty of time to consider all manner of things, including creating new chamber orchestras. Nick Byrne is not alone, you see. Eric Klay, Bass Trombonist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has also been a prime mover in getting the new Nicholas Chamber Orchestra running in Melbourne . See http://www.ncosociety.com/
    Good luck to them both.

  3. «Not so good for Sydney, which loses a good one.»
    Actually, Sydney has gained a good “Associate Conductor”.

  4. Pingback: Family-Friendly Concert « Stumbling on melons

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