Unlikely trio combine forces with flair

15 May 2023

Flute, harp and viola interlace in a program that challenges and enthrals, revealing a combination of almost limitless possibility, writes Angela Ho. 

Among the Birds and the Trees, presented by Musica Viva Australia  
Perth Concert Hall, 14 May 2023

Among the Birds and the Trees asks as much of listeners as it does from the performers.  

Impressionistic to its core, the Musica Viva program features concert repertoire for an unlikely trio of instruments spurred on by Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915). In fact, it’s the centrepiece around which the rest of the 80-minute program is built.  

It brings to a close three weeks of national touring for the internationally acclaimed musicians — Adam Walker (flute), Timothy Ridout (viola), and Anneleen Lenaerts (harp) — who lace together the program with tremendous virtuosity and ensemble pedigree.  

Walker opens the concert with a rendition of George Benjamin’s flute solo Flight (1979), which paints a scene of birds soaring and dipping over mountain peaks with its alternative use of haunting low-register glissandi (gliding between pitches) and explosively executed flourishes. I’m blessed with a third-row seat, so I pick up the soft tapering notes — and the concentration with which Walker articulates them — but wonder distantly how a listener up the back could hear them.  

Highly technical, the piece makes for intense and atmospheric listening, but it’s perhaps a risky show opener, if only for its unpredictable atonality and arhythmic qualities.  

Anneleen Lenaerts is one third of a dazzling trio. Photo: Naomi Jellicoe

Lenaerts’ performance of Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the rain), the third piece from Debussy’s Estampes for piano, is a glowing arrangement for harp. It showcases a well-voiced baseline across a rippling undercurrent of arpeggiated sequences, evoking raindrops during a violent rainstorm.  

Compared to the sonic imagery implied by Walker’s Flight and Lenaerts’ garden storms, Ridout’s take on Telemann’s Fantasia No. 7 in E-flat major (originally for violin) is an outlier that swaps the tonal meandering of the 20th century for the light and airy restraint of late Baroque.  

All three performers are clearly talented in their own right but Gubaidulina’s The Garden of Joy and Sorrow is the much-awaited moment we see what the unique trio of instruments can collectively offer. Ridout introduces the piece, which takes inspiration from both the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova and German writer Francisco Tanzer, reciting a translated version of Tanzer’s poem about the world and its unknowableness.  

The piece itself is an apt setting of the poetry that relies on the viola’s natural harmonics, expressive flute passages and sonorous harp glissando to convey the sorrowful mood. Fluttering trills suggest the flitter of birdsong, while Lenaerts plays the opening harp accompaniment with a tuning key that modifies pitch with oriental outcomes. Overall, it’s a captivating and ethereal preview of the impressionistic flair and flavour to come. 

As the concert’s back half flows on, I’m pleased to see the soloistic characters of each instrument shining through in the choice of repertoire. Takemitsu’s And then I knew ‘twas Wind brings out full-bodied, velveteen moments in the viola, highlighting the instrument’s ability to hold its own, or blend as required.  

A harp arrangement of Debussy’s well-loved Clair de Lune preludes the program’s final work — the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp — marking a return home. Walker and Ridout stay onstage as Lenaerts plays; stands pushed aside, instruments down and listening, and it’s perhaps the most intimate moment of the whole evening.  

If the soft aural soundscapes of the concert’s middle half alienate those unfamiliar with impressionism, the final three-movement sonata offers an inroad back to where the beauty began.  

Perhaps the only limitation, as Walker points out, is the lack of existing repertoire. But flute, viola and harp are otherwise limitless in their sound and aesthetic potential — and Musica Viva scores a success with this underappreciated platforming. 

Musica Viva’s next Perth concert, featuring pianist Garrick Ohlsson, is at Perth Concert Hall on 19 June 2023. 

Pictured top: Adam Walker, Anneleen Lenaerts and Timothy Ridout highlight the joys of an unusual combination. Photo: Naomi Jellicoe

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Author —
Angela Ho

Angela Ho studies journalism and law, and has reported for the ABC and 10 News First with Media Diversity Australia. A lover of niche harmony, she’s classically trained to count rests as a violist, hold an alto line and, most recently, handle the Perth Bell Tower bells. The swings are Angela’s playground frolic of choice.

Past Articles

  • Close encounter stirs the soul

    Violinist and composer Rupert Guenther welcomes us into his inner world for a soul-searching evening of improvisation, writes Angela Ho. 

  • Guiding light for state of riches

    Perth Symphony Orchestra lights the way in a captivating collaboration delivered with poise and polish, writes Angela Ho.

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