BY SAMUEL COTTELL
The Hourglass Ensemble
Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House, October 23
In true form to its aesthetic and mission statement as a chamber ensemble, Sydney’s new Hourglass Ensemble provided a mix of Polish and new Australian music including two world premieres in the Utzon Room. The programming provided opportunities for each of the artists to display their solo playing as well as demonstrate their tight, chamber ensemble skills.
The evening opened with Peter Sculthorpe’s ‘DreamTracks’ for clarinet, violin and piano. This piece takes influences from the musical ideas of ‘Dijilie’, and taken from the larger ‘Songlines’ series. The three musicians rendered their intricately woven musical parts together and created a vibrant rhythmic and textural scape. Gregory Kinda’s piano part provided the rhythmic and harmonic framework over which Andrew Kennedy on clarinet and Beata Stanowska danced and floated. Here, we heard some extremely fine ensemble playing matched with an enthusiastic presentation of this work.
The next piece on offering was a world premiere by Margery Smith. ‘White Shadows’, dedicated to her brother Peter, who tragically took his own life this year, is an exploration on the themes of impermanence, loss and isolation. Before the piece began, Smith spoke to the audience about the process of writing the work and the importance of the text. Poet Lidja Simkute then took to the stage and recited the text contained in the final movement. It is certainly refreshing to hear composers talk about their personal experiences and how this is displayed in their work.
The fifth movement ‘En Plein Air’ contained text from Rita Bratovich, based on the writings of Peter. The opening of this piece set the tone for the remainder of the work and a delicate atmosphere was soon established. The flute was placed off to the left and the violin to the right, gently echoing in the distance before moving closer to the rest of the ensemble. This was an extremely well crafted and considered composition that explored many shadings of colour from instrumental combinations. Baritone Andrew O’Connor, who was a guest soloist, relieved the lines of text with tenderness and delicacy, his velvety voice gliding atop the musical lines from the chamber ensemble. O’Connor’s expression and shading in these songs brought the poetry and the text to the fore.
To conclude the first half was a new work by Australian composer Michal Rosiak: ‘Contrasts’ for flute, clarinet and piano is cast in two contrasting movements. The first movement contains spiky harmonic and rhythmic episodes that quickly move into new musical ideas. Overall, this piece contained many fast-paced ideas that quickly changed without really evolving the musical line. Frantic episodes emerged and submerged themselves in a virtuosic feast. The ensemble performed to the highest of standards and the interplay between Kowalski on flute and Kennedy on clarinet was highly charged. Kinda’s pianistic gymnastics provided a tightly woven rhythmic impetus upon which the foundation of the ensemble was situated.
Opening the second set was Ewa Kowalski performing the solo flute work ‘Orient Bis’ by Adam Porebski. The piece draws on Japanese and Chines flute playing and explores extended techniques such as triple and double tonguing, flutter tonguing and glissandi, all which demonstrate exciting tonal palettes from the flute. Kowalski’s control of tone was highly developed and her control of the instrument highly crafted. Her approach to the extended techniques explored every subtle nuance of the flute and she was able to display all of her skills, technique and stagecraft in this virtuosic performance.
The centerpiece of the evening was a solo piano performance from Gregorgy Kinda, whose musical craft and sensibility were evident from the first few notes in his rendition of Grazyna Bacewiz’s Piano Sonata No. 2. This piece was composed in the early 1950s and displays a plethora of influences, ranging from hefty Russian rhythms and dissonances to elements of jazz, French music and Impressionistic overtones. Kinda’s thunderous approach demonstrates his total command and control of the Steinway piano, much like a race car driver behind the wheel of at high speed event. He propelled highly climactic music forward with every phrase. This was a charged performance of a work that had nearly everything in it. I had always thought Horowitz was my favourite pianist – and then I heard Gregory Kinda.
The concluding piece was another world premiere. Kennedy’s ‘Hourglass Beach’, for chamber ensemble and baritone explores themes of morality in today’s world. Beginning with a modal sounding harmonic framework, the musicians wove individual lines around musical ideas. Guest soprano Suzi Stengel entered the stage midway through the work and sung a lament in the second movement ‘Three Lullabies’. The soprano voice added a change of colour and pace to the work and served as a new palette before Andrew O’Connor took the reigns to conclude the piece. Andrew Kennedy’s scoring was well considered and thoughtful. His use of tonal language included modal elements and strong melodies.
This was a stand out performance from the Hourglass Ensemble in its inaugural performance as Sydney’s newcomer to the chamber music scene. Throughout the evening the group engaged with the audience, explaining the pieces and giving personal stories about the players. The room was charged with energy and enthusiasm and if this performance is anything to go by, it is safe to say Hourglass will have a very bright future as a high calibre chamber ensemble.