Amici Ensemble consolidates its reputation as valuable, adventurous Wellington adornment

Wellington Chamber Music 
Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (cello), Bridget Douglas (flute), Patrick Barry (clarinet) and Carolyn Mills (harp

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581
Debussy: Syrinx for solo flute
Salina Fisher – Coastlines for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp
Mozart: Flute Quartet in D, KV 285
Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie in A for Violin and Harp, Op 124
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 16 September 3 pm

We have owed a great deal to this splendid, many-facetted ensemble over the years, held together by NZSO Associate Concertmaster Donald Armstrong. Most ‘chamber music’ groups are either trios or quartets, and occasionally a quintet by adding a piano, a cello, a clarinet… Here we had enough variety to give us Mozart’s clarinet quintet, and also Ravel’s septet that is disguised as Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp, a delightful concoction that clearly inspired Salina Fisher to write her new piece, using the same forces.

Mozart: K 581
I have a feeling that in most of my reviews of Mozart’s clarinet quintet I have regaled readers (if any) with my nostalgic affair with a motor car, a cassette and by-ways of rural France and Spain,  err… 40 years ago. Almost all my discoveries of great music are embedded in memories of time and place of first hearing – not a bad way to prepare for life’s later years.

This performance of the Mozart did that again, for its tones, tempi, spirit were very similar to those produced by that long-ago cassette, and so it aroused admiration for the loving performance that NZSO string players, plus principal clarinettist Patrick Barry, created. Their re-creation of the gorgeous melodies of the dreamy slow movement, again both clarinet and strings equally ‘lime-lit’; the clarinet’s perfectly normal, undulating arpeggios and scales , though mere accompaniment, momentarily stole attention from the strings. The menuetto with its two trios became unusually interesting, more than many a Minuet and Trio; and the ‘Theme and Variations’ of the finale offered surprising contrasts between delight and pensiveness.

The Debussy memorial year was marked here with his Syrinx from Bridget Douglas, warm tone without any hint fluty shrillness that sometimes alters its mood.

Then came Salina Fisher’s Ravel look-alike, but in instrumentation only, Coastlines. The tremulous clarinet begins, then a mere punctuation by flutes. Its title did rather call up the feel of the Kapiti Coast, being a commission from the Waikanae Music Society, though I have difficulty using landscape or narrative as a way of understanding or assessing music. The instrumental combination seems to hint at all kinds of natural or man-made sounds, and the sounds of the sea, wind, birds and the atmosphere conjured by light. The breathy flute, the blend of harp and clarinet, but it was a sense of the music’s trajectory, of one phase evolving towards another, one instrument relating with another, that took hold of the attention for a few moments as a sound pattern took shape.

There was the flow of a story somewhere and satisfaction about the patterns of sound that left me finally with a feeling of contentment with Fisher’s chimerical creation.

After the interval Mozart’s first flute quartet restored conventional sounds and patterns, and again, here was a time for Bridget Douglas to become a leading voice, although with Mozart, even a sort of solo instrument doesn’t remain for long in the limelight, but places the music rather than the player centre stage. The performance emphasised the warmth of melody and the importance of the ensemble element. It never allowed one to think that even in a fairly early piece (1777/78, aged 21), Mozart was not concerned primarily with producing interesting, even unexpected events, for example the unresolved end of the Adagio, making the finale Rondo necessary.

Saint-Saëns: violin and harp 
The novelty (apart from the Fisher piece) was a much older piece: Saint-Saëns at 72, in 1907. It’s quite true, as the programme note writes, that it might have sounded old-fashioned to the more adventurous music lover at the time, though the avant-garde music then starting to emerge would have been quite unknown to the average concert-goer. Nothing essentially ‘Second Viennese School’ was circulating; Debussy and Ravel, and perhaps the Strauss of Salome, were the radicals of 1907.

But the unusual combination – violin and harp – might have gained it some attention. It’s a polished, stylish and idiomatic piece, generally bright and warm and not the least uninteresting. For the record, the sections are: Poco Allegretto – Allegro – Vivo e grazioso – Largamente – Andante con moto – Poco Adagio.

There is momentary darkness with the descending, double stopped notes in the Allegro but a genuine allegro spirit takes over quickly. And the following Vivo e grazioso cannot really be dismissed as fluff. The remaining three sections are fairly slow but do not lose their feeling of continuity; and they create a rather charming picture, especially as played so persuasively by Armstrong and Mills.  The whole thing sounds as if the composer had been taken with the possibilities of using these two instruments and quite attractive ideas came easily to him.

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro 
Finally, the second major piece (second to the Clarinet Quintet). It was interesting that Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro was contemporaneous with the Saint-Saëns Fantaisie. Though I knew the story about commercial competition between Paris piano makers Pleyel and Érard, I couldn’t remember which way the conflict went. In 1904 Pleyel invented a new chromatic harp and commissioned Debussy to demonstrate its worth (Danse sacrée et danse profane), while Érard defended his century-old double action pedal harp by commissioning Ravel’s piece. The latter prevailed in the market place (political corollary: this sort of result from competition does permit an exception to my general scepticism about its social, even economic efficacy).

Happily, both pieces are much-loved favourites, and it was a delight to hear the Ravel played by such accomplished musicians. Ravel might have been too radical for the Prix de Rome judges at the Paris Conservatoire, but this piece is gorgeously romantic and playful, and as this programme showed, there’s plenty of room for both Saint-Saëns and Ravel in civilised society.

The concert more than lived up to the reputation of Donald Armstrong and the Amici Ensemble’s as a valuable and adventurous adornment to Wellington’s rich musical scene.


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