There was much to celebrate this evening as excited Melbourne concert audiences grow as they return to a new “normal”. We welcomed woodwind instruments back to the stage, composers and benefactors to the audience, and acknowledged the outstanding success of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall as they announced their re-branding as Australian Digital Concert Hall with national streaming plans extending well beyond tonight’s milestone 431st concert. Bassoonist Matthew Kneale also dedicated this performance to the memory of Lewis Plumridge, Head of Music at Mentone Grammar 1981-2008, recognising the lasting influences of our inspiring music educators.
An arrangement of Borodin’s symphonic poem In the Central Steppes of Asia was a charming and sensitive opening work, light and precise, with much warmth and colour emanating from united crescendos and diminuendos. Essentially a “double-reed” piano trio, there is a striking empathy in phrasing between Emmanuel Cassimatis (oboe) and Matthew Kneale (bassoon) with Nicholas Young (piano) always giving a sensitive and pristine piano accompaniment. This fresh arrangement was spacious and contemporary, a balanced and pleasant entrée.
It is always special to hear solo performances from exotic orchestral woodwinds “up close and personal”. Bassoon solos are a rare treat. Contemporary Sydney-based composer Calogero Panvino wrote Seven Deadly Sins for the ballet Seven Wells, and from that suite, a short movement – Gluttony – allowed Kneale to explore the bassoon’s bold lowest pitch and demonstrate its physical power and presence. Beginning in the low register with heavily accented notes and emphatic broad tones, melodic fragments soon developed into rising, laboured widening steps. A central staccato section accelerated into a run, but Gluttony just had to take control as the phrases descended to a final long low note.
Pan, from Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Op. 49 showed the immaculate artistry of Cassimatis’ oboe, admirably pitch perfect, sweetly charming, and at the right times technically showy and playful. Young followed with a solo piano performance of four movements from J.S. Bach’s French Suite No 5 in G major. An elegant Allemande was nicely coloured, warm legato lines being played with affection. The Courante showed the clear spirit of the dance form, with a detached bass contrasting with the instrumental colour of the upper melodic flow. The true beauty of Bach was shown in a quite delicate, almost fragile Sarabande, less of a dance, more of an introspection. The final movement, a spirited, energetic and very lively Gigue had my imaginary dancers stepping on toes once or twice, before the featured work of the night, Stuart Greenbaum’s Seeing Earth (2019) brought the full trio and the composer to the stage.
Greenbaum shared the inspiration he took from the film The Space Between Us, about a boy born on Mars who experiences Earth for the first time. Commissioned for Ensemble Françaix by Jennifer Bryce, the music first conveyed the child’s many aspects of awe, wonderment and questioning. Solo oboe first penetrated the atmosphere with gentle exclamation, bassoon responded with short phrases of questioning and observation, and the piano explored colours and tone clusters, floating, soft and gentle. Each instrument affirmed its own realities, exploring changing timbres, detached phrases and uneven metrical pulse groups, until the ensemble grew in boldness, fuelled by big resounding low bassoon notes. Excitement grew with a virtuosic whirlwind-like finale.
This lovely, but short musical program gave us a potpourri of exotic times and places, so the trio turned to French impressionism for their encore, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. How often are we given a sorrowful and heavily drawn-out piece for a “dead princess” and do not experience Ravel’s true intentions – to show the spirit of a dance by a little princess and not be a funeral lament. Ensemble Françaix certainly produced forward moving phrases and a flowing tempo, depicting a youthful dancer who was very much alive and well. Most admirable too was the balance of the ensemble, the beautifully sustained oboe upper harmonies exposing Cassimatis’ fantastic breath control, and the fresh sight and sound of this special ensemble committed to colourful and contemporary chamber music
Julie McErlain reviewed “Seeing Earth”, performed by Ensemble Françaix, and presented by Australian Digital Concert Hall at the Athenaeum Theatre on November 17, 2021.