BY SAMUEL COTTELL
‘Psycho: The Music of Bernard Herrmann’
Omega Ensemble - Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House, 28 February
The music of Bernard Herrmann is know to many audiences both inside and outside concert hall circles. His music was featured, to great effect, in many films, particularly many of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers (we all know his most famous music from the film ‘Psycho’). But, there is a side to Herrmann that is hardly known to most – his career as a composer of concert music. Before he commenced work as a film composer, Herrmann was indeed a respected composer of ‘serious’ music and had much success. Omega Ensemble created a program that is likely never to have been seen before in Australia – an afternoon of Herrmann’s compositions from his post-film career.
The afternoon commenced with a stunning performance of Herrmann’s ‘Echoes’ for string quartet. Composed shortly after Herrmann divorced his wife and the conclusion of his partnership with Hitchcock, the work is a lament on the past, and somewhat of a nostalgic one. Commencing with a motif in the lower registers of the first and second violins (who had interplay here) the material in this work was largely comprised of small rhythmic and melodic fragments that unfolded over its course. There were hints of Shostakovich, and a deep melancholy and calm overcame the room at the conclusion of the work. ‘Echoes’ was stunningly rendered by the Omega Ensemble string quartet: Catalin Ungureanu (violin), Airena Nakamura (violin), Neil Thompson (viola) and Teije Hylkema (cello). The musicians’ finesse as an ensemble was demonstrated throughout the whole work, particularly when each of the parts enter one by one. To follow this was the short ‘Psycho Suite for Strings’. Based on the famous thematic material from the film of the same name, this work explored textural aspects and created shifting moods with harmonics played on the strings and shimmering textural harmonies. The most exciting aspects of this work were the rhythmically charged ones where the ensemble produced rich and detailed moods to great effect.
To open the second half of the program was Herrmann’s Clarinet Quintet ‘Souvenirs de Voyage’. Before the piece, clarinettist David Rowden shared his story of a difficult attempt to get a copy of the score for performance. After a long search, Rowden was finally able to obtain a copy from a friend of Herrmann’s who had catalogued most of his concert works and rents them out. It was lucky for us that Rowden kept up the search. The Clarinet Quintet, while somewhat more optimistic than ‘Echoes’, utilised similar compositional devices (such as short melodic fragments and repetitive rhythmic motifs) that provided contrasts of colour as the piece transitioned from one section to the next in each movement. Rowden’s sensitive approach to this work demonstrated his finest as a performer; the subtle shadings between light and dark and between the different registers of the clarinet elevated the emotion and intensity. Similarly, Rowden’s control of the musical line and subsequent phrasing demonstrated his complete control over the more quieter moments. This was a stand-out performance from Rowden that should have been recorded for more people to hear.
To conclude the performance was the world premier of Nicole Brady’s ‘Postlude’, an homage to Herrmann and Hitchcock. With a score for clarinet quintet (and featuring bass clarinet), pre-recorded sounds and an actor, this work was designed to evoke fear and tension within the space in the room. Before the piece commenced the electric curtains in the Utzon Room descended, leaving the room in a sullen haze of blue lighting. As the speaker commenced, she was reciting instructions on how to build a bird using a variety of materials. Once the musicians started, the actor was barely audible and from my vantage point I couldn’t hear much of what she said (perhaps this was the intended effect?). The music, like Herrmann’s, consisted of a series of harmonic and rhythmic ‘cells’ that moved from section to section with references to musical ideas found in ‘Psycho’. While the aim of this work was to create fear and tension and was certainly a fitting conclusion to the performance, I felt that it would have been more effective had it been slightly longer and had more contrasting section to establish the intended mood.
This program was a demonstration of the fine programming and the bright, bold and beautiful sound that Omega produces time and time again. Whilst it seems that the music of Herrmann is in the air for many Australian ensembles, this year Omega has done something completely different and shown us a much deeper and introspective version of Herrmann. Omega’s performance was a thing of utter beauty and again it demonstrates why it’s a leading chamber ensemble of today.