Ensembled delights from Amici in Wellington

AMICI ENSEMBLE – Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts 2010

DEBUSSY – Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp / FRANCAIX – Quintette for Clarinet and Srings / ROSS HARRIS – Four Laments for Solo Clarinet / STRAVINSKY – Three Pieces for String Quartet / RAVEL – Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet

Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong, Cristina Vaszilcin (violins) / Gilian Ansell (viola) / Rowan Prior (‘cello) / Phil Green (clarinet) / Bridget Douglas (flute) / Carolyn Mills (harp)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 30th May, 2010

Whether it was my watching Harpo Marx in that memorable harp-playing scene from the film “A Night in Casablanca” which I remember seeing as a child, or my being smitten as a young man by the beautiful Rebecca Harris, the NZSO’s harpist during the 1970s, I’m not entirely sure; but I’ve always been drawn towards music written either for a solo harp or to music with prominent parts for the instrument. My first, wide-eared and open-mouthed encounter with Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet on recordings was thus a formative, “surprised-by-joy” experience, music which, to my ongoing regret, I had never had the chance to hear performed “live” before this concert. So, it was with a cocktail mix of pent-up excitement, anticipation, enjoyment and some foreboding that I prepared myself to sit through this afternoon’s beautifully-presented programme, awaiting those limpid wind chordings that announce the beginning of the Ravel work. Of course, I needn’t have worried that the performance was going to be anything less than wonderful, as I was pretty familiar with the work of all the soloists whose combined talents made up the Amici Ensemble – and, most importantly, I’d heard Carolyn Mills as both a soloist and accompanist already, playing the harp like an angel in one of the most beautiful performances of Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” that I ever hoped to have heard “live” or otherwise, with the Nota Bene choir in 2008.

It didn’t take me long to become embroiled in each of the items once the music started, firstly the Debussy, a work I didn’t know, a Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, one of six chamber works planned by the composer, who unfortunately lived to complete only three of them. What struck me was the music’s absolute freedom of impulse within an extremely simple overall framework – a pastoral-like first movement, a gently-animated, occasionally excitable second movement with a touch of sobriety at its conclusion, and an energetic, free-spirited last movement, the work as a whole elusive and discursive in direction and intent, but undeniably attractive in places.  The players enabled us to dream the opening, flute and harp preparing and slowly awakening the ambience for the sinuous viola line, the harp quite “antiphonal” when contrasting its upper and lower registers. At times the detail wrought by the trio was almost Oriental in its delicacy and clarity of focus, the teamwork responsive and beautifully co-ordinated. A somewhat more earthy and animated second movement was largely energised by Carolyn Mills’ harp, the music losing some of its buoyancy and clouding over towards the end, allowing a moment of introspection to take charge, if only fleetingly. The harp also set in motion the finale with toccata-like insistence, flute and viola playing “poet and peasant” in places, contrasting both the colour and texture of their utterances throughout the ebb and flow of exchange. Despite the players’ advocacy, it was a work I confess to finding more admirable than lovable – subsequent hearings may well change my attitude.

But I must confess to a weakness for Jean Francaix’s music – its droll humour, ready sentimentality and unrepentant volatility, qualities I think of as being very French. In some quarters Francaix’s music is thought of as shallow and vapid, with too ready a reliance upon surface effect; but I like his juxtapositioning of states of emotion, as if keeping foremost in mind the principle of life being “a tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect”. The composer’s Quintette for Clarinet and Strings demonstrates this lightness of touch and playfulness of wit – a sweetly nostalgic opening, but with strongly-etched violin lines nicely projected here by Donald Armstrong, and with Phil Green’s liquid clarinet tones making the music glowing like a ferris wheel turning in the sunset. Very much the music’s protagonist, the clarinet initiates a new, impish mood, gurgling with anticipatory glee before dancing off with a “come on!” gesture. The ensemble energises the music beautifully throughout, pausing for a few melancholic reflections, before taking up the adventure with renewed vigour, the instruments tumbling down the hill with child-like delight at the end. Such winning, infectious playing in the cake-walk-like scherzo, the players then leaning elegantly into the trio, again beautifully characterised, with sentimental clarinet set against more ascerbic, knowing strings, the music seemingly reluctant to return to its scherzo-ish manner at the end. Gillian Ansell’s viola established a mood of sombre beauty at the slow movement’s beginning, the music constructing great archways of gathering and falling tones, the playing full of tenderness. The insistent, nagging finale again had the clarinet playing clown to the strings’ more dogged purpose. I loved the clarinet’s waltz tune, played by Phil Green with wonderful insouciance atop the strings continued rhythmic insistence, as was the solo instrument’s outlandish cadenza, Francaix stressing his “comedy to the intellect” stance by gathering up the work’s strands for a classic throwaway ending. All very stylishly done.

Some of us had heard Ross Harris’s Four Laments for solo clarinet earlier that day at the SOUNZ Tender concert, and were thrilled to hear a new work being given not one but two chances to impress in public. The performer and venue were the same as before, but, as with the behaviour of colours when juxtaposed differently, the music sounded different in this context, perhaps with clarinettist Phil Green taking the opportunity to characterise more fully his view of the work. Each piece was inspired by the concept of “lament” as expressed in four different languages; the first, “Klaga”, from Sweden, the sounds ghostly and hollow-sounding, with brief impulses of movement overtaken by a prevailing sense of isolation. The Yiddish “Vaygeshray” had extroverted energies, behind which seemed to lurk an undertow of anxiety and unease, while the “Tangi” movement featured full-throated wailing, occasional birdsong, and evocative overtones mingled with gestural breathing, the ‘mauri-ora’ (breath of life). Finally the Gaelic “Corranach” evoked a wild landscape and snatches of a dance-ritual, scraps of jigs and reels, the age-old disintegration of a richly-wrought life. Again, Phil Green’s playing “owned” the music, realising sounds that somehow seemed “unlocked” rather than newly-made.

Donald Armstrong entertained the audience most engagingly by way of introducing the programme’s next item, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet. These were written in 1914, a year after the first performance of the composer’s epoch-shaking ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps”, and are unconnected character studies. They were originally published without titles, but Stravinsky later orchestrated them and added a fourth, to create his “Four Etudes for Orchestra”, transferring the names to the quartet pieces. Donald Armstrong asked the strings of the quartet to demonstrate aspects of the work beforehand, and talked about things like the nagging “housewife theme” in the first piece, and the famous London circus clown Little Tich, whose “eccentric movements and postures” Stravinsky modelled the second movement upon. The players confidently characterised each of the pieces, the obsessive four-note folkish repetitions of the opening Danse, the “jerky, spastic movements” of the second piece Excentrique, and the almost liturgical homophony of Cantique, the final one of the set.

After these were done, we settled back to enjoy the afternoon’s final work, Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” This performance seemed to me to realise everything one could have wished for from the music, apart from a profoundly uncharacteristic wrong note from the clarinet at one point, a slip which seemed to take Phil Green aback as well! But Carolyn Mills’ harp playing was a joy, the strings and wind achieved miracles of delicacy and balance throughout, and the whole ensemble seemed at one in realising the piece’s contours of intensity, colour and emotion. Nothing was shirked, with tones both diaphanous and forthright, as required, from the ensemble, through the “running” momentum instigated by the harp, and the intensification of the argument by the strings, generating waves of joyous energy leading towards the final upward flourish. My reaction to it all was coloured and flavoured by pleasurable expectation, I admit, but it seemed, nevertheless, to me to be a brilliantly successful performance. For this reason I didn’t need “Greensleeves” as an encore afterwards, but it would have pleased the punters no end, and was, I must report, nicely realised.

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