Exquisite and unsettling sounds

18 March 2021

A rock star clarinet player and a dystopian modern work were the stand out moments of Cygnus Arioso’s concert, says Tiffany Ha.

“Cygnus Arioso Chamber Weekend Finale”, Cygnus Arioso ·
Perth Concert Hall, 14 March 2021 ·

It’s a tough ask to fill the concert hall on a Sunday afternoon. Even tougher when your show was supposed to take place six weeks ago – on the very day WA went into lockdown for the second time. Imagine having all your pieces diligently rehearsed to performance standard, programs printed and folded, your concert blacks freshly laundered… and then the show gets cancelled just a few hours before call time.

This is what I pictured as Akiko Miyazawa came out on stage to welcome us on Sunday; she seemed wearied, yet gracious, as she spoke about the trials of planning and replanning the Chamber Music Weekend concerts. But she (and the rest of us) seemed genuinely happy to be at a concert, in the flesh.

First up was Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Miyazawa led the ensemble with nuance and gravitas. It was all very tasteful, measured and understated. While I would have liked something with a bit more pizzazz for a show opener, I did enjoy the third movement which featured call and response passages between the upper and lower strings – a satisfying contrast to their well-executed, unified tutti playing.

Next was Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, a quintessential work from the chamber music canon. It’s often described as a musical conversation in which quick-witted phrases get passed around between the players, as if five individuals were sitting in roundtable discussion. But on Sunday the focus was very much on rock star clarinettist Ashley Smith, whose physicality and aesthetic is just so damn cool. Thankfully, he is also astonishingly talented. His tone is exquisite – somehow both human and godly – and he erases all “instrumentality” from the performance, playing as if the clarinet were an extension of himself.

Perth composer and Cygnus Arioso co-founder Lachlan Skipworth’s Clarinet Quintet (arranged for extended ensemble) was my personal highlight of the program. His distinctively modern, neo-impressionist style was a welcome change from the rest of the program’s pretty, inoffensive standard repertoire. Skipworth creates beautiful, unsettling musical textures by way of innovation, experimentation and intimate knowledge of each instrument. His approach to timbre is masterful and never gimmicky: harmonics, multi-phonics, and extended bowing techniques all serve to paint his dystopian vision. I had goosebumps for the entire last minute of the piece: Smith’s clarinet solo drifted up into the ether against a shifting backdrop of descending string glissandi, which seemed to – gently, with insistence – envelop the lone clarinet voice before arriving at complete stillness and silence.

But you can’t leave your audience feeling introspective and in need of a hug, so afterwards we had our spirits lifted by Saint-Saens’ Romance. It was performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s principal flautist Andrew Nicholson and harpist Yi-Yun Loei (a recently returned expat who has so many accomplishments that I’m not sure whether to refer to her as Dr. or Prof.). Afterwards, the duo were joined by several of the other Cygnus Arioso linchpins for a rendition of Ravel’s much-loved Introduction and Allegro. Loei had the audience enchanted, wrapped around her deft little finger, during the wonderfully idiomatic harp cadenza.

While I enjoyed the afternoon’s musical offerings, it felt more like a serenade than a finale. The overall atmosphere was pretty casual (there a man dressed in lycra who looked like he’d stopped in to watch the concert before cycling home via Riverside Drive). But I guess that’s part of the charm of chamber music; it’s less about the spectacle and more about sharing music. And this kind of flexibility and community-centred approach is exactly how performers are having to adapt in a post-COVID world. I just wish the choice of repertoire reflected this too.

Pictured top: the members of Cygnus Arioso led by concertmaster Akiko Miyazawa. Photo supplied

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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