Local legends scale chamber challenge

13 March 2021

Musica Viva Australia’s first Perth concert for 2021 was notable for the novelty and heft of the programming, the virtuosity of the local players, and the sheer amount of concentrated work which must have gone into its preparation, says Sandra Bowdler.

“Ashley Smith, Paul Wright, Sophie Curtis & Gladys Chua”, Musica Viva Australia·
Perth Concert Hall, 23 November 2021 ·

The Perth leg of Musica Viva’s first national tour for 2021 was cancelled due to COVID-19 border restrictions, which prevented Diana Doherty and the Streeton Trio from performing in Western Australia. At short notice the concert was reorganised to feature local artists: star clarinet performer and scholar Ashley Smith (who was awarded his doctorate the night before the concert), the redoubtable violinist Paul Wright and favourites cellist Sophie Curtis and pianist Gladys Chua.

Smith is known to have a great interest in Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), and no doubt the inclusion of her Trio for Clarinet was his choice. Smetana’s Piano Trio in G minor Op. 15, on the program of the original concert, was also included. One of the unusual aspects of the programming was that it went backward in time. First up was Debussy’s Première rhapsodie, one of his intimations of modernity composed in 1910. Smith was joined by Chua for an excellent partnership. The rippling piano with clarinet floating above was quite a familiar style for Debussy, if more usually involving a flute. Some jazz-like excursions led to an ecstatic conclusion, warmly received.

After Debussy, Chua was joined by Wright and Curtis for Smetana’s (1824-1884) Piano Trio, composed on the death of the composer’s daughter. Not surprisingly, it is a highly emotional work in a full-bloodedly romantic way, and after the Debussy, it sounded quite traditional. The four movements were each distinguished by a variety of moods, and did not sound much like Smetana’s better-known works, except for what sounded like Czech style dance flourishes every so often.  Given the somewhat roller coaster nature of the work, the cohesion of the players was remarkable, with the piano here making an equal contribution to the virtuosic strings.

The last work was introduced from the stage by Smith, who provided some historical background for Farrenc, whose style looks back to the classical era, which is generally defined as juddering to a halt in 1820. Smith’s declaration that the performers were “beyond excitement” at presenting Farrenc’s Trio certainly provided an incentive for the audience to sit up and take notice. The players’ excitement happily did not lead to overlooking any niceties of performance or interpretation. The opening Andante –Allegro moderato fell crisply and authoritatively on the ear, like a Beethoven string quartet in terms of confidence and clarity. It was followed by a gentle and slightly meandering Adagio, satisfying to the ear but far more emotionally restrained than anything in the Smetana.  A minuet movement sounded a long way from that 18th century dance form, and the concluding Finale Allegro summoned forth great virtuosity from Smith’s clarinet. It is not easy to instantly assimilate a largely unheard work, but this performance certainly engendered an interest in hearing more of Farrenc’s work.

An encore comprised a work by contemporary West Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth, one of whose works had been intended to be included in the concert which this one replaced.  What we heard was “Ode” from 2012 for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, which brought all the performers back to the stage. The work was sonorous, melodic and somewhat melancholic, and featured solo parts for each performer and a final impassioned climax.

Musica Viva’s next Perth concert is 3 May 2021 with Konstantin Shamray and the ANAM Orchestra.

Pictured top: Ashley Smith, Gladys Chua and Sophie Curtis perform for Musica Viva’s Perth concert. Photo supplied

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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