Amici’s beautiful French programme at Upper Hutt

Upper Hutt Music Society: Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong, Cristina Vaszilcin, Gillian Ansell, Rowan Prior, Philip Green, Bridget Douglas, Carolyn Mills)


Two Interludes (Ibert), Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (Françaix), Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (Debussy), Three Pieces for String Quartet (Stravinsky), Introduction and Allegro (Ravel)


Expressions Theatre, Upper Hutt


Tuesday 3 August 8pm


I missed Amici’s concert in Wellington Chamber Music’s Sunday series at the end of May so was delighted to be able to hear this engaging programme in what I repeatedly refer to as the most attractive concert venue in metropolitan Wellington.


There was only one change from the Wellington programme – the substitution of Jean Françaix’s clarinet quintet for Ross Harris’s new piece that the Wellington organization commissioned.


This group with varying membership, led by NZSO Associate Concertmaster Donald Armstrong, is a particularly valuable feature of Wellington’s musical life, for chamber music is so dominated by the string quartet and the piano trio that audiences have come to feel that all else is inferior.


I discovered the truth in my teens when in one of the surprising by-products of compulsory military training an Air Force colleague introduced me to the lovely Debussy and Ravel pieces that feature the harp in different configurations – respectively the Danse sacrée et danse profane and the Introduction and Allegro; the latter brought the present concert to an end. Debussy’s other piece with harp, played here, I discovered many years later. Sadly, while there are many beautiful pieces for string quartet plus other instruments, particularly winds, the harp continues to have a thin time of it.


So the Debussy and Ravel pieces were at the heart of this concert and were separated in the second half by Stravinsky’s rarely played quirky, diverting pieces for string quartet which was an adroit move.


Violist Gillian Ansell introduced the Debussy nicely, with illustrations of the motifs in the first and second movements, always an excellent way to prepare the mind to follow the course of unfamiliar music.


My first thought as it began was how miraculous Debussy’s music still sounds when juxtaposed with most other music of its time and after. Of course the Stravinsky piece is evidence to the contrary, also written during the first World War, but the two pieces in the first half, charming and interestingly written as they were, seemed not to have imbibed much from their great compatriot who cultivated tonality with originality and wit, ignoring the arid, artificial procedures that some contemporaries were alienating audiences with.


In the first movement, rather enigmatically called Pastorale given its Boulevard Saint-Michel flavour, these brilliant players gave vivid expression to the spare themes that are innately decorative and contain their own intrinsic development, needing no further embellishment; just an uncanny genius for turning from one to another with ingenuity and an unerring feeling for their relationships. The second movement contains more extended ideas and its discursiveness did offer an ‘Interlude’ of greater repose. The ensemble’s performance, with flute assuming the violin’s usual role in chamber music, made it a brilliantly cut gem where all three players were so in accord.


The Ravel was the only piece employing all seven players and it is a pity that such a singularly attractive blend has not become a standard. It is a remarkable, virtuosic as well as perfectly idiomatic piece for all the players, particularly Carolyn Mills strong and brilliant display on the harp; and again, the performance was simply of recording quality, so finely balanced, so together, so lively, graceful, elegant.


An encore involving all seven was not easy to find: Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves fitted admirably.


Their achievement is no doubt the combination of years of orchestral discipline and a great deal of playing in small chamber groups where they can hear and respond to everything so clearly.


The first half was devoted to two much later French pieces, post second World War; they were obviously influenced by their great predecessors, but some way below them in musical profundity and imagination.


The Ibert of Escales or the Divertissement is really rather more interesting than these harmless though highly expressive pieces; the second ‘Interlude’, more purposeful, allowed more of Ibert’s liveliness to show.


The Françaix quintet was, naturally, a more serious effort, but the character of its raw material and its treatment does not suggest a neglected masterpiece. It was very much a piece that celebrated the clarinet, allowing Philip Green the spotlight with a great deal of entertaining work; in an interesting feature in the last movement, the clarinet departed from the general jaunty pattern to follow a much slower, independent path till a brilliant cadenza led it back to the main route.


Happily, the entire performance was so polished and filled with energy that it was possible to overlook the music’s less memorable features. The entire concert was extremely accomplished and hugely enjoyable.



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