Cramped and cramping

CAMERATA RE-MASTERED

Camerata Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday June 5

Orava Quartet

A few days before this concert took place, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall came on board to televise it live. A very kind offer but an odd one – after all, how many Victorian (or for that matter, extra-Brisbane) music-lovers customarily leave their homes and travel to QPAC for a Camerata night? Naturally, the orchestra’s viewing population would (should) have been expanded, especially by those (like myself) who were tempted to stay home rather than go to the hassle of hour-long train trips, Queensland Government identification codes, the slowest-moving foyer crowds in the nation, and an irrationally long program given in one hit.

But there we were, the faithful followers of live performance, giving Brendan Joyce’s young players large dollops of encouragement as they laboured through a nine-part program of works that ranged from the sublime and challenging to the trivial and instantly forgettable. Joyce and his organizing team set the bar impossibly high for themselves by starting their operations with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge Op. 133. That’s the sort of bravura that Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra can handle, and even then with no subs in the ranks.; but it was a very demanding ask for the Camerata first violins, even allowing for the confidence of Joyce and his 2IC Daniel Kowalik. Some of those top B flats in the first fugue were both thin (understandable) and not universally assured in pitch; I know that the top line’s exposure is total in the most difficult stretches of this segment but those slight deviations were hard to ignore.

Camerata’s violas made an excellent showing throughout the multiple changes in this still-taxing score and the single double bass was ever-welcome in this arrangement whenever she entered to reinforce the cello line. But the ensemble often had their hands full negotiating pitch and rhythm, especially in those pages where the counterpoint is hard-worked,, and so the final effect was of musicians surmounting a struggle rather than outlining an object of interpretation.

Every time I hear Turina’s La oracion del torero, I find myself asking what kind of prayer did the composer have in mind. Even considering the usual vision of the matador genuflecting before a small statue of the Madonna and Child, you have to question the thought processes that led the composer to this lush outpouring of local colour, several salons away from a death-in-the-afternoon scenario. But setting one’s Hispano-Catholic perceptions aside, you can simply luxuriate in the piece’s fabric, and this was an excellent reading of Turina’s small jewel. The thirds and sixths exuded lushness beyond the dreams of Aztec-sacking avarice, while the players enjoyed more comfort in these pages, a welcome refuge from Beethoven’s intransigence, the ensemble showing to better advantage in the Spanish composer’s high tessitura writing towards the end in that Mantovani-suggestive Lento.

John Rotar, a highly active young Queensland composer, enjoyed hearing two of his pieces on this program; the first a Brisbane premiere of his Beyond the Front Door, referencing the emotional and physical release that comes at the end of a pandemic lockdown – in which aim, the work enjoyed a definite success in narrative terms. Strong on 2nds and 7ths at the start, the score proved active, as if the physical activity of breaking through state-imposed domestic barriers held both pleasure and pain. Not that Rotar maintained this nervous activity throughout, pausing for an attractively swelling melodic swathe from the violas that was taken over by each section. Indeed, the composition built to a full-bodied peroration until a conclusion that melded strong bass chords under the violins returning to the opening nervous mobility. This is a distinctive creative voice, informed by a sure hand at orchestration and an attractive harmonic vocabulary, albeit a diatonic one laced with brusqueness.

Next came another vault into another country with Steve Reich’s Duet for two solo violins, four violas, three cellos and a double-bass. Joyce and his principal second violin, Jonny Ng, gave an appropriately driving account of the upper lines’ canons, playing in-phase sequences that didn’t outstay their welcome – which is not always the case with he American composer’s creations. Still, Reich was kind enough not to have his supporting lines simply play sustained notes throughout but gave them some rhythmic variety, even if fitful in nature.

Continuing with the American flavour, Joyce and his colleagues followed this happy Reich flourish with Barber’s Adagio for Strings: one of the cornerstones of American music and a reliable aesthetic resource in time of travail – President Kennedy’s assassination, the Twin Towers catastrophe, Meghan’s interview with Oprah. Here was a laudable reading, without the elongated bathos that too many ensembles inflict on these spare pages; rather, simply letting the interweaving arches make their own points as the composer intended with precise dynamic markings but no demands for rallentandi, ritenuti, or supernumerary general pauses. Not that the Camerata avoided imposing some extraneous hiatus points, but the performance proved respectably uncluttered and truthful.

Before the final work – Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings – Joyce & Co. presented three Australian works of differing characters, all by Queensland writers. First, Puppet Play in Java by Betty Beath dates from 2009 and is a mildly colourful soundscape based on F Major but pentatonic for all of its duration, as far as I could tell. The senior composer keeps her texture light, the atmosphere consistent, demands on its interpreters not that great, and the duration just long enough. I don’t know Indonesia at all, its music very superficially, and Beath’s vision is of a much milder disposition than expected. And that’s fair enough, even if the results tend towards blandness.

Little Corellas: Allora 1987 by Cameron Patrick suggests a phenomenon from the composer’s youth when he played at the home of the original Camerata founder, Elizabeth Morgan. A flock of corellas in flight stayed in the composer’s mind from those years, revisited in this work from recent months and, with a craftsman’s touch, he has created a mini-tone poem, beginning with whirring suggestions of aerial action and displaying a suggestive freedom in its interplay of lines. This language is also, at base, traditional with enough dissonance to remove any banality yet, after its completion, it reminded me of a finely achieved documentary film score; considering the writer’s background and career, that should come as no surprise to anyone.

Rotar’s second offering – Plains Baked Golden in the Morning Light (on Winton) – was also composed earlier this year and turned out to be the most substantial of this Brisbane trilogy. It read, to my mind, like a series of scenes, dominated in its first part by solos for Joyce and principal cellist Karol Kowalik, the latter’s melodic line punctuated by percussive string work. But this work presented as more conscious than its companions of contemporary string production techniques, through some saltando-like passages, free-wheeling arpeggio patterns, individual high glissandi, grinding dissonances et al. It brought to mind, Sculthorpe’s Sun Music, particularly No. IV, in certain textures, specifically the suggestion of birdsong. Towards the end, the cellos revisited their broad melody with lashings of vibrato and the work concluded with more suggestions of Sculthorpe at his slow-moving best and – perhaps because of the cello’s prominence – an intimation of Schelomo, and even Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Nevertheless, this construct impressed for its ambitious scale and the honesty of its emotional scenario, no matter that I kept on hearing older voices flashing out from Rotar’s multi-coloured fabric.

I’ve got little to report about the Elgar work, the evening’s most satisfying achievement for its pliant attack and security of ensemble. Of course, it makes a big difference if you take the four powerful Orava musicians out of the Camerata ensemble to fulfil the duties of the composer’s solo quartet; the orchestral segments sounded underdone in their absence. But Joyce had ensured that the magnificent characteristic segments – like the opening strophe and its repetition at Rehearsal Number 5, the nobilmente downward striding at Number 12, the resolving Come prima and its melting two-bar quartet breaks, and the dynamic energy of the work’s final 14 bars – all came across with precision and eloquence of timbre.

I made a habit over the years of avoiding encores, if possible; it wasn’t on Saturday, so I sat through the group’s reading of Mancini’s The Pink Panther title theme. Yes, it’s a bit of fun and the group snapped fingers and whistled neatly enough, but the defining small glissandi at phrases’ endings doesn’t transfer well from sax to violin. And, even to this tolerant palate, the exercise seemed self-consciously flippant. Needless to say, the Camerata faithful loved it.

Of more importance was the length of this concert which ran without interval for over 90 minutes. I can’t answer for other backsides but mine was numb to a painful level at the end, the ache rising to a peak during the Mancini. It’s great to give value for money but I could have cut this program by three numbers and their absence would not have detracted much from the players’ demonstrations of skill.