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Duo Eclettico

by Julie McErlain

How wonderful it is to see a very special contemporary performing arts venue, fortyfivedownstairs, return to live performance, with Coady Green curating a varied and exciting summer season of five recitals featuring some of Melbourne’s brightest stars in classical and contemporary music. With a limited audience, tickets sold out for this opening night, so livestreaming continues to connect us to these exciting events. The shared interest of Duo Eclettico in promoting and exploring new works for sax and piano sowed the seeds for this enticing program.

In the saxophone family, the soprano sax is often both respected and feared with its challenging technique, tone and pitch variables. Kenealy’s arrangement of Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor was a magnificent showcase of his talents, with this well-known work given fresh colour and virtuosity in a scintillating performance. It is rare to see this instrument playing Bach’s music with such sensitivity and elegance, a broad range of dynamics and impeccable pitch and finger technique. Those long Baroque phrases are only able to be mastered by outstanding circular breathing and physical control. These accomplished and award-winning musicians have an admirable partnership, where musical rapport, balance, and rhythmic connection resulted in a highly applauded and engaging experience for listeners. The Andante, in particular showed Kenealy at his expressive best, with haunting and evocative tones giving us a rare feel for the potent timbres of this instrument.

From Melbourne composer Linda Kouvaras’ new work Night Pieces – a five-movement suite to be premiered later this year – two pieces, Shelter in Place and Reach Out,were included byGreen and Kenealy as a preview. In a tonal and colourful, almost Romantic landscape, the soprano sax melody was suggestive of a luxurious cinematic soundscape, where a calm and harmonious spell would soothe our COVID anxieties in Melbourne’s time of lockdown.

Picnic on the Marne by prolific American composer Ned Rorem is a suite of seven short but perfect portraits, each one complete in its architectural structure. Vividly describing an afternoon spent in the suburbs of Paris, this Australian premier performance for alto sax and piano leapt into top gear in the opening Driving From Paris, a busy manic and frantic improvisatory charge, which only briefly paused twice for a gentler section, idling in slow gear before taking off again in this exciting ride. A Bend In The River more gently evolved from its dreamy solo sax introduction, the piano adding featured bridge passages and French colours, with a pastoral air completing the imagery very nicely. The neo-classical waltz Bal Musette combined sweeping lyrical phrases and classical waltz rhythms with exuberant chords and melodic echoes in an exhilarating piano accompaniment. Low, slow, repeated patterns, sleepy short glissandos and Kenealy’s very lovely vibrato and bent notes in Vermouth portrayed the slurred speech of Parisienne intoxication. Kenealy described A Tense Discussion as a piece where the sax was hot and free, the piano cold and correct in this conversation. The piano held its own on low dense chords building with more grandiose and determined regular pulses, while alto sax explored a wider range, quirky patterns and contrasting movement.  Making Up allowed Green to advance into the limelight as both instruments joined a rapid whirlwind of freewheeling and virtuosic ideas. Mission accomplished, The Ride Back To Town showed relaxation and resolution in steady walking pulse beats, as the sax melody stepped methodically in wide intervals leading the way. Plans and dreams came to an end with a closing diminuendo.

In 2020, Duo Eclettico received a grant from the City of Melbourne to establish an award for young composers. Gulliver Poole was present to introduce his winning piece, Solicitude, a work inspired by Liszt’s Un sospiro, here exploring the different harmonies and textures possible for soprano sax and piano. The essence of Solicitude is the strong care for someone or something. It begins with blissful love, changes with moments of angst and questioning, sorrow, parting, a chapter of life closes, time passes and we move on towards peace. A very acrobatic, flowing and complex piano part reflected Poole’s pianistic skills, and soaring sax line with shimmering high notes expressed the magic and tenderness of love. Following the heights came the depths as stronger lower notes and descending passages suggested a questioning, a wondering and those sinking feelings. This emotionally direct work was a fine accomplishment for this young composer.

Australian composer John Carmichael recently celebrated his 90th birthday in London, and his Latin American Dances was a joyful finale. Joropo was high on flamboyant hot rhythms, with the duo ripping into some exciting unison revelry. Obsession may have had an obsessive melodic theme, echoed in conversation between the musicians, but this sultry, sensual dance was graceful and pleasing. Bahama Rhumba was a finely written piece, full of character, colour and high spirits. Jongo was followed by tremendous applause after its opening bars of dark earthy shadows built to higher registers, with freedom, chromaticism and increased energy and cross-rhythms reaching climactic fullness in a highly virtuosic ending.

Photo supplied.

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Julie McErlain reviewed the performance by Duo Eclettico – Coady Green, piano, and Justin Kenealy, soprano and alto saxophones, at fortyfivedownstairs on January 14, 2021.

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