Musica Viva’s Strike A Chord lived up to its name for everybody who followed the inaugural Grand Final of the national chamber music championship for secondary school ensembles. Twelve ensembles resonated around Australia as Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s 5stream tech wizards drew together the cream of Australia’s very youthful ensembles.
Half of those ensembles came from Sydney, along with two from Brisbane, and one each from Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth. Of the eight ensembles featuring stringed instruments, most were either string quartets or piano trios. Music from the Romantic era dominated program choices. It was refreshing to have the inclusion of the Cellolujah cello quartet from Melbourne, especially as this ensemble played the only original composition by an Australian composer: Miro Lauriz, a young composer from the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, who wrote L’Ondes for his fellow students last year. An attractive piece with rich melodic interweaving of the voices designed to showcase the talents of the performers and explore the textural properties of the cello ensemble, it was inspired by the works of Debussy and Ravel – as its title suggests.
Other less conventional inclusions were the two percussion ensembles, both products of Brisbane’s J Percussion Music School. The quartet of JPMS Ensemble Animato and the sextet of JPMS Ensemble Brillante provided some of the most thrilling playing of the afternoon. It came as no surprise that Ensemble Brillante won the $2,000 Peter Druce Audience Prize and were awarded second place overall with the $4,000 Paul Morawetz Prize; the enthusiasm the three girls and three boys brought to their playing of Alex A. Orfaly’s Tanc Szervusz (the only other contemporary composition on the program) was simply exhilarating. Percussion is an extremely physical brand of playing and the way the girls danced their sticks over the marimbas, their faces radiating exuberant energy, was a joy. By the end of their virtuoso feat, we were standing in our living-rooms applauding wildly. Ensemble Animato also impressed with an atmospheric, controlled performance of Matthew Prendergast’s arrangement of Mercury from Holst’s The Planets.
Third place, the Laura Brown Prize of $2,000 was awarded to The Lavashi Trio from Sydney. As first ensemble off the blocks they made for an exciting start. I could easily count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been unexpectedly floored by the “rightness” of a performer’s interpretation when I had no idea who was playing. It was doubly unexpected coming from this particular competition. Who was that pianist shaping a phrase so perfectly near the beginning of the first movement of Arensky’s Piano Trio in D minor? Consulting the program notes more closely, I found it was Joshua Zhi, a pianist of no ordinary talent, but one who has been acclaimed as an “international phenomenon”. In addition to winning the Sydney Eisteddfod Award for Performance Excellence in 2018, he has attracted widespread international recognition, including winning the First International Music for Piano – Young Artist last year in Vienna. And he is barely into his teens. The other members of the trio: Victoria Teo (violin) and Lawrence Wei (cello) contributed to a technically skillful and musically persuasive reading of the Arensky movement.
The choice of the recipients of the Robert Salzer first prize of $5,000 would also have come as no surprise to the audience. Cousin Quartet comprises two sets of siblings who are also cousins – Beatrice Colombis (violin), Dylan Colombis (violin) Hanna Wallace (viola) and Jamie Wallace (cello). Their many years of experience as an ensemble was strikingly apparent as they played the first movement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op. 44 No. 1. It seemed as though their music could have fallen on the floor and they would have continued without missing a beat, so assured were they. Much of the time their focus was on each other rather than the score in front of them as they sought to share the pleasure of the music and play in perfect accord from memory. Technical ability was well and truly at the service of re-creating the composer’s uplifting music. They loved playing it and we loved listening to it as we watched these young Sydney musicians revel in it.
Committed effort and cooperation from a host of contributors of various descriptions also went into making this competition a huge success. Even a technical glitch with the direct broadcast from Adelaide was quickly compensated for by playing the audition tape so that we could enjoy the vocal ensemble Esperanza sing Sam Robson’s arrangement of How Great Thou Art to best advantage. To hear the eight singers from St Peters Girls School sing again in such beautifully blended harmony could only be considered a bonus.
Ed Ayres was his usual enthusiastic, articulate presenter and Wilma Smith gave an informative summary of the relevant criteria as head of the adjudication panel. While members of the panel were coming to their decisions regarding the relative merits of the ensembles in terms of technical ability, understanding of the composer’s intentions and connection with each other and the audience, we were provided with a wide range of video clips from various ensembles who had not quite made it to the Grand Final. It must have been a formidable task choosing just 12 ensembles from 103 entries.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this event was that it has never been held before. This initiative was a particularly shiny silver lining to the dark cloud that is COVID-19, and its continuance will make an important contribution to the fostering of young musical talent in Australia.
Photo: First Prize winners of Strike A Chord 2020, Cousin Quartet, with Hywel Sims, CEO Musica Viva Australia. Photo supplied.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Grand Final of the inaugural Strike A Chord national championship for secondary school chamber ensembles, held by Musica Viva in association with Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, on September 12, 2019.