Claire Edwardes plays Rojas | The Metropolitan Orchestra

Claire EdwardesEven now, visiting The Independent Theatre, North Sydney, is like taking a step back in time. It's not only Sydney's oldest Edwardian, but oldest surviving, theatre, with grand arches in the main foyers and an elegant, yet modest, understated and intimate 300-seat tiered auditorium. For recent, major refurbishments we've The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust to thank. Its profound achievement has been to invest in the innate brilliance of the hall’s acoustics, which have established it as one of the world's finest chamber music venues. It's a step up from the building's 1886 status, as a tram depot. Since 1911, the site has seen well over four-hundred theatre productions, ranging from Shakespeare to Coward. Gladys Moncrieff sang there. Roy Rene performed there. And, just last Saturday, The Indie played host to The Metropolitan Orchestra's second season for 2013, with featured soloist, percussionist Claire Edwardes. The concert was also in honour of TMO's fifth anniversary.

TMO launched early in 2009 under the artistic directorship of chief conductor Sarah-Grace Williams (listed by Limelight as one of the top five Australian conductors). In that time, it's presented more than sixty concerts. Its resume reads impressively, having played with or under the baton of the likes of Sumi Jo, David Helfgott and James Morrison, Brian Castles-Onion, Antoinette Halloran, Rosario La Spina, Anke Hoppner, Christopher Hillier, Henry Choo, Nicole Car and numerous others, at the Sydney Opera House, City Recital Hall, The Concourse and elsewhere. It's also been engaged for events including both the BBC's Blue Planet and Planet Earth concerts, the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, Opera in the Vineyards and, of all things, the NRL Grand Final. Hardly high-brow, but it ensured TMO has now been seen and heard by, literally, millions. Despite all these successes, TMO now faces a GFC of orchestral proportions, so any philanthropic assistance is warmly and desperately welcomed.

Claire Edwardes is, of course, regarded as one of the most innovative and important percussionists of her generation. Her focus this particular evening was on marimba.

Daniel Rojas is a Chilean-born Australian concert pianist (proclaimed as 'a master of his instrument') and composer, as well as, as became apparent, a very engaging and charismatic presenter. More on him, or his work, later.

Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was the first item on the bill of fare. It might be well over a couple of centuries old and as familiar as your favourite pair of socks, but it really could've been written yesterday, always sounding as fresh as the new day as birdsong ushers it in. It is, almost certainly, the most popular of all Mozart's works. There'll be those, no doubt, who'll look down their nose at this but, in some cases at least, popularity is an endorsement of excellence.

Of course, it takes a considerable orchestra to make it so and, for the most part, this scintillating serenade had all the spritely spring in its step it ought, though there was, at one point, a flutter in tunefulness from the violin section; I seem to recall this may've been in the final rondo. It wasn't egregious, but it was noticeable and disagreeable. In the scheme of things, though, it's reduced to little more than a qualm. Since it was written for a chamber ensemble, rather than string orchestra, one has to make allowances for the degree of difficulty in adaptation, too.

In any case, things began well, with Williams putting a Mannheim rocket up the orchestra, so that the opening, ascending crescendo had all the sharply rhythmic assertiveness the score demands, accompanied by a concentrated melodiousness. An orchestra cannot be backward in coming forward with this allegro; the classical equivalent of headbanging. There was a tight unity between sections, the ascending and descending figures of the opening fanfare defined tightly, yet no great aural effort was required to distinguish high from middle and lower voices and dynamics were invigorated. Likewise, Mozart's rising and falling, tumbling second phrase was propelled with the ease of momentum one would prefer. And the lovely filigree with which WAM has adorned his resplendent fundamental four-bar architecture was communicated sweetly. This isn't to say TMO has quite the corporate confidence, concision or sheer velocity of, say, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner (you'll likely know it from the film, Amadeus), but Williams drives her players to colour and intensify it with passion; arguably, a rather more Italian approach. Nothing wrong with that. After all, if biographical conceits are in any way accurate, Wolfy himself was, perhaps, uncharacteristically impassioned, for a Viennese. So one fancies he might've approved.

It's a challenge, too, for an orchestra to modulate from the near strident flavour of the allegro to the graceful lilt of the andante romanze, but this was by no means a bridge too far for TMO, thanks to Williams' strong hand. The timbre was lovely and the players seemed to embrace the movement with understandable fondness. To glance this against the understated rhythms implied, resembling those one might encounter in a courtly folkdance, is no mean feat either; but in this, also, the TMO succeeded commendably. This movement seems to exemplify, as well as any by Mozart (including the preceding allegro with its tiny, but delightful, surprises), his father's counsel that 'what is slight, can still be great'. The work as a whole, too, reflects a parallel movement in architecture that emerged in the eighteenth century, in which line, order and symmetry were afforded a new emphasis; one, perhaps, not seen since the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. Mozart, among others, appears to have been much influenced by this mathematically-derived sense of elegant proportions.

The key in reproducing Mozart's scores respectfully and honourably is for a conductor to get inside the eighteenth century mindset and have the orchestra reflect the aesthetic milieu that underpins it. A composer, or other artist, would be seeking to elicit different textures, colours and characters, but always in familial relationship; detours would always return to the main road; balance, unity, order, composure (no pun intended) and symmetry were esteemed as being refined, intelligent and in good taste. This is why TMO's rhythmic integrity in the menuetto, underlining the waltz time, was so important and impressive. The orchestra also did a fine job of imbuing this movement, by turns, with the requisite drama and repose.

The frisky rondo, too, was executed in a deft, glistening, featherweight fashion; with spring in the step.

From Mozart to Rojas. Rojas? Yes, Daniel Rojas, the aforementioned. Not quite a household name, perhaps, but one of those in our contemporary midst probably more deserving of that status than most who are. This was the world premiere of his Chamber Concerto for Marimba & Orchestra. It's a work that certainly embraces the 'rich and vibrant Latin American aesthetic' for which he's known and so highly-regarded. As he points out, it also typifies the concerto form, inasmuch as being a conversation between soloist and orchestra. Naturally, one exposure to the work is hardly enough to form strong impressions; rather, sketchy ones. My recollection is of three pieces which alternated between ravishing and challenging. Challenging, by the way, is no indictment. I mean challenging in the sense, perhaps, that Bartok is. There is introversion and extroversion; a divergent, bipolar character that, through Rojas' Maozartian skill, is somehow unified and whole.

A hidden conceit is the centrality of keys D, G & E, which echoes the names of the key collaborators: Daniel; Grace; Edwardes. It's an unusual way of honouring colleagues. And an indelible one. But the highest tribute is paid through the work itself, which is wildly imaginative, evocative and deeply personal; indeed, at times, one feels as though the composer is confiding in us.

The first movement, Serpentine, pays homage to the awe inspired by the mighty Amazonian river system. Like water, the music has both power and fluidity; it impresses as both dense and arabesque. Rojas' signature flavours are discernible: broadly Latin American. The former alludes, of course, to so many other musics that it's informed: jazz, salsa and tango, to name but a well-known few. One might assume the percussive emphasis derives principally from Afro-Cuban roots, but that's to deny a similar impetus present in other traditions across the Latin spectrum. Either way, it's these influences that suffuse an unmistakable jubilance. And yet there's another nagging voice; something tonally darker. It's as if Rojas is, at once, celebrating something, while mourning something else.

Ebb, the second movement, give much away in the naming. While Serpentine snakes its way out into the wider world with an exploratory zeal, Ebb, it seems, looks critically inward. It has a hymnal quality, not to mention a nebulous fusion of European forms (Italian, Spanish & French) reminiscent of tango. Ebb, too, seems to be grieving for something lost. Innocence, perhaps.

Soiree turns the tide back to exuberance. It sees Edwardes in full flight, a veritable blur of multicoloured mallets, wielded with the utmost accuracy and sensitivity to dynamics. All in all, she drives the piece forward with a rhythmic momentum that matches its outgoing, upbeat style. To say she is virtuosic is redundant; she's more, transforming what must clearly look promising on manuscript paper into sonorous, shimmering aural opulence.

Hovering between tonality and atonality, Rojas' concerto is layered, balanced and rewarding on many levels.

The finale was, appropriately, Haydn's last London symphony; (and, at No. 104, his last ever, as it turned out). While known as the London Symphony, the truth is there were eleven others. Haydn, of course, while serving out his thirty-year tenure at the Viennese court of the Esterhazys, became known as Papa, the father of the symphony (and, for that matter, string quartet). His output was prodigious. He was, however, seduced to the English capital and it was there he composed and performed this work, in D major, the very same key as his first ever symphonic composition. What were we saying about symmetry? One of its loveliest features is the pretty, romantic, three-note figure said to emulate street vendors cries, which has also been theorised to be the reason why this, of all Haydn's symphonies conceived in London, is known as 'The London Symphony'. It may be apocryphal, but, really, who cares, since it makes for such a poetic anecdote?

One of the tougher tasks for an orchestra comes in the very first (of four) movements, an adagio that transmutes to an allegro. TMO handled the transition with ease, just as the dramatic fanfare that launches the work (achieved with just two notes) was punched out with the requisite sense of theatre. Then follows the difficult segue to the rather more subdued and, at times, even anguished passage for strings. The dynamic differential is profound, but was handled with aplomb.

There was a bother point at which the violins sounded somewhat awry but, as in the earlier occurrence, this proved more an aberration, since, otherwise, TMO acquitted itself handsomely across all the movements.

To hear music of this quality, performed by musicians of this calibre, on a wet and wild Saturday night in North Sydney, proves us to be (should we harbour any doubt, this side of the bridge) a civilised society, after all.   

The Metropolitan Orchestra
Claire Edwardes plays Rojas

Venue: The Independent Theatre | 269 Miller St, North Sydney, NSW
Date: 22 June 2013
Tickets: $40.00 – $20.00


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