Review: Shadowlands


There’s the age old question: who from history would you have over for dinner? Well, after this performance I would probably have to say the Sydney based chamber group Omega Ensemble. This year the group celebrates its 10th birthday and second year as artists in residence at City Recital Hall. During the past decade Omega has given numerous chamber music presentations at the forefront of the genre, often exploring lesser known works and bringing them to the public. This performance demonstrated broad and engaging programming choices, from performing a landmark work for the Austo-German repertoire to new Australian works.

The program began with an ensemble of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and piano and voice to perform Paul Stanhope’s Songs of the Shadowland. The text of these songs is from three mourning poems by Indigenous Australian poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Stanhope’s music does not engage with clichés on these themes but rather explores the feelings of mourning in a deeply introspective and contemplative manner. The moving music was beautifully rendered by the ensemble. Soprano Lee Abrahmsen’s full and rounded voice illuminated the emotional content in this pieces. Her controlled vibrato added vibrancy and a kaleidoscope of colours, blending perfectly with the ensemble. A lone French horn lament, that takes place between the second and third songs, was stunningly rendered in the hands of Michael Dixon. The horn lament features descending glissando notes, stopped notes and natural harmonics. Dixon made the horn sound like a human voice, weeping and sobbing.

To conclude the first half was a world premiere of Australian composer Mark Isaacs’ ‘Chamber Symphony’. Isaacs, known primarily for his work as a jazz pianist, has always had an affinity for classical music. He knows how to navigate the two worlds of jazz and classical and fuse them together, drawing all kinds of things from past to present, and spinning them into his own personal style. The opening movement utilises popular music type melodies, often voiced in octaves to enhance the line. The wordless voice added another tone colour and hinted at the idea of scat singing found in jazz. The last movement was an energetic, using repeated melodic cells that overlapped and developed into lush harmonies with tinges of jazz-infused sounds. The alternating time signatures and pulsing melodic lines and use of sequences creating some pleasing musical moments. I can’t wait to listen to more of Isaacs’ orchestral writing.

Mahler’s fourth symphony was the first in which he decided to not allocate programmatic notes or information about the work. Mahler composed the piece between 1899 and 1901, at a time when he had only recently decided to compose throughout the year (as opposed to only in the summer). It is the most chamberesque of his symphonies as he wanted to write music that was ‘paired down’. Indeed, this work was an important moment for Mahler as he revisited the past of old Vienna and included older forms and styles in the work. Famously, it was been written that this work looks ‘back to Haydn’; overall it was a work of self discovery.

Omega really understood and engaged with this concept on a number of levels and the group’s performance of this work retained the symphonic proportions of Mahler’s music. The harmonium (played by Heidi Jones) – rarely audible on its own – added a thickness to the textures and more depth. At times, the arrangement of this work was sparse, yet Omega managed to deliver a sound as full as a symphony orchestra. Maria Raspopova was a chameleon at the piano, never sounding pianistic but blending and enhancing the other sections of the ensemble (this is not an easy thing to do).

Huy-Nguyen Bui’s full bodied sound on the violin added a profound depth to the orchestration, particularly in the second movement when the score calls for a violin tuned a tone higher. Bui’s playing on the tuned-up violin heightened the drama and created a sparkling and somewhat crispier edge to the sound world. Lee Abrahmsen returned to the stage for the fourth movement and explored every nuance of the text and Mahler’s melodic line, shaping it with care and treating it with a certain delicacy. Her tone was the perfect match for Omega Ensemble. This rendition of Mahler’s fourth was engaging and deeply hypnotic. Colours and gestures were stunningly rendered in what I can only describe as a landmark performance from the Omega Ensemble.