Combining the passion of Mendelssohn and the flamboyancy of Shakespeare, the Flinders Quartet unleashed their dramatic side in their second program of the year, a Midsummer Mendelssohn Gala. Joined by (the one and only) Chris Moore, violist in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Hawthorn Arts Centre was near full capacity in anticipation for this awaited collaboration.
The night opened with The Curly Pyjama Letters by Calvin Bowman, commissioned for the quartet in 2012. The music was incidental to the reading of Michael Leunig’s poetry of the same name. The poetry was in the form of letters to and from Mr. Curly and Vasco, two of Leunig’s regularly occurring characters. These letters contemplated playful and meandering thoughts typical of Leunig’s aesthetic, including ‘”friends are like fronds” and “Is it ‘gargling’ angel or ‘guardian’ angel?”
Moore, minus his viola, stood in front of the quartet while reading off an iPad on a stand as though it were a lectern in a church. His reading was earnest, his comic timing eliciting hearty chuckles among the crowd. The string quartet tirelessly accompanied his dramatic reading, their energy and characterisation of the music completely in sync with the poetry as it traversed both dark and light themes. The crowd was enthused, giving rapturous applause as the performers bowed. It was an entertaining and pleasing performance of a work that would be difficult to execute if it were not performed by the right ensemble.
The narration with music theme continued with Ian Grandage’s piece Puck’s Dream (after Midsummer),a premiere work for this concert series, and undoubtedly a highlight. Intended as a follow-on from Mendelssohn’s iconic piece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, the work featured a narrator who played the role of Puck. There being no other individual to perform it better, Chris Moore began the performance by sculling an entire glass of red wine on the side of the stage then brandishing a cheeky grin at the crowd. At this moment, Moore had immediately transformed into the manic spirit of Puck; he paced around the string quartet in a wild, unbridled manner, wielding his viola while executing Shakespearean monologues as though it were his own stream of consciousness.
Grandage’s music was an amalgamation of his own aesthetic and Mendelssohn. Moments of prose were underscored by agitated string tremolos, which then broke down into a Mendelssohn-style euphoria as the intensity of the text built. In typical Grandage-style, the music itself harnessed all attempts to be theatrical, featuring many moments of jarring mood changes at cadence points and luscious, flourishing melodies. While the work was without a doubt a crowd-pleaser, it showed the prowess of the Flinders Quartet and Moore’s performative palate all the same, as well as the laudable efforts of Richard Piper as director and Jim Atkins as sound engineer.
The second half of the concert was quite different; Moore left his dramatic talents to the first half, and joined the Flinders Quartet for a performance of the Brahms Viola Quintet No. 2 in G major. While it lacked the palpable exuberance of the first half, it was still a committed and passionate performance. After a somewhat unsteady start, the piece it grew its legs as it progressed, especially the second movement where each instrumentalist took their moment to shine. Thibaud Pavlovic-Hobba (guest appearance with the quartet) and Nicholas Waters were elegant on the violins. Chris Moore and Helen Ireland on the violas held the middle voice with ease. However, Zoe Knighton’s assertion of the cello line underneath the dense upper string texture was a highlight of the performance, her confidence and flair a captivating aspect.
Although the Brahms did not leave the same impact as the first half, it was a lovely close to an evening of enjoyable and unpretentious night of high-class music. The program was a reminder of the Flinders Quartet’s unique and refreshing ability to present an exceptional standard of classical music in a way that feels warm and human.
Reviewed at the Hawthorn Arts Centre on Thursday the 26th of July.