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Melbourne Digital Concert Hall: Arcadia Winds

by Maree Gladwin

With a program of music spanning a little more than two centuries from Beethoven to the contemporary Australian composer Mark Holdsworth, Arcadia Winds provided us with a celebratory and “hellfire” performance that gave full vent to the virtuosic musicianship of this iconic Melbourne-based wind quintet. 

The journey of sharp musical contrasts set off with Beethoven’s Wind Quintet Opus 71 arranged by Robert Stark. Originally composed for wind sextet by the young Beethoven in 1796, this piece echoes the rich woodwind tonalities of Mozart’s wind serenades of the Classical era. While the Beethoven quintet is one with which many people may be familiar, it is best never to under-estimate the demands on wind ensembles to achieve the right degree of elegance and balance of sound required by the Classical genre. That was certainly achieved in this performance. The many and varied melodic ideas and harmonic combinations that are shared between the different instruments in each of the four movements were beautifully exploited by the ensemble right up to the final light-hearted Rondo with its skipping dotted rhythms. This movement was taken at a lively pace and was a sheer delight to listen to but I am not sure if it would have aided the digestion of the Archbishop of Cologne, Maximilian Franz, the instigator of the composition, who liked to have ensembles of wind instruments accompany his meals!

The second work on the program, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, written in 1910 for two pianos and arranged for wind quintet by Joachim Linckelmann, was not an obvious choice but a delightful and apt one. Matthew Kneale, a foundational member of Arcadia Winds, explained in his introduction to the piece how his many walks around parks and gardens during the lockdowns in Melbourne had caused him to turn inwards, to daydream and to feel closer to nature. These experiences, he felt, are given expression by Ravel’s charming composition based on four fairy tales that come together in the celebratory final movement, The Fairy Garden, where the curses on Beauty and the Beast are lifted and a grand wedding feast ensues. This is a beautifully evocative and engaging piece with all the variations in tonal colour and texture that are a feature of Ravel’s impressionistic style. While the sudden tempo changes were not all seamless, this was a lovely performance, well-paced and sensitively interpreted by the ensemble. Especially effective was the warm, sonorous playing from Matthew Kneale on bassoon and Lloyd Van’t Hoff on clarinet together with sparkling contributions from the higher register instruments leading up to a final exultant crescendo.

Mark Holdsworth’s Hellfire that followed is an exciting and very contemporary addition to the wind quintet repertoire. Written and premiered in 2018, the startling, high-pitched shriek from Steph Dixon’s oboe in the opening bars was almost enough to explode the Bluetooth earphones out of my ears! A scream from hell indeed! This is a challenging and sophisticated five-minute work of frenzied intensity played brilliantly by Arcadia Winds. The notation draws on an array of wind techniques that required the performers to slur, slide, glissando, chatter, twitter and screech their way through driving, relentlessly repeated staccato motifs interspersed with occasional lyricism and moments of silence. Solidly underpinning this rhythmic hyper-activity were the rich bass notes and immaculately controlled staccato of Rachel Shaw’s horn. This is a piece than demanded tight ensemble work and virtuosic individual performances from every member of the quintet. Congratulations to Arcadia Winds for their outstanding performance but also for initiating the competition that gave rise to the piece. Composer Mark Holdsworth, the inaugural prize-winner, has described his piece as representing the duality of life and death – the contrast between light and dark that underlies all of human existence. For some of us, however, his composition may bring to mind the fate of the millions of panic-stricken birds and animals caught in the raging firestorms of 2019.  If you would like to hear this work, I recommend its premier performance by Arcadia Winds at the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2018, which is available on You Tube.

Perhaps one of the few pieces that could follow Holdsworth’s extraordinary and individualistic piece in the program was Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik Opus 24 No. 2 for Wind Quintet. Composed in 1922 when it was described as “atonal”, the quintet has retained its innovative character, but in today’s context the inherent lyricism of Hindemith’s harmonic language can be more easily identified and appreciated. As with Holdsworth’s work, the Hindemith quintet was perfectly suited to the highly developed musicianship of Arcadia Winds whose members appeared to revel in its quirky, edgy musical character.  Littered with obsessively repeated notes (ostinato), arpeggios and mini-cadenzas for all instruments, the ensemble injected great tonal variation and verve into this highly enjoyable performance, a verve that was greatly enhanced by the exuberant performance of Eliza Shephard on flute and piccolo. Divided into five sections, the quintet began with a buoyantly humorous flowing movement, (Lustig). The short quirky waltz section (Waltzer) and the third, more introspective and sombre movement (Ruhig und einfach) that followed were connected, via a short transitional passage (Schnelle viertel), to the final movement (Sehr lebhaft) and a fast-paced sprint to the end. As the final three low chords rang out, I was leaping out of my armchair and shouting “Bravo!”

This was indeed a celebratory concert by Arcadia Winds that happened to mark not only the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth but also the 200th concert presented by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. As Arcadia Winds had given the first concert in the MDCH series, this was also a fitting opportunity to celebrate the outstanding success of the MDCH project that has now raised over $800,000 to sustain musicians and support staff over the course of the pandemic.

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Maree Gladwin reviewed the recital by Arcadia Winds presented by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on November 13, 2020.

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