by Alan Heartstein, 13 July 2016, Sydney Arts Guide
As someone who hadn’t actually heard Sydney’s Omega Ensemble before I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Monday night’s concert at City Recital Hall. Sure there were a lot of red faces at the end of the concert, but that had a lot to do with the fact that this woodwind/brass ensemble of about 10 musicians, give or take, had been blowing their collective guts out for nearly an hour-and-a-half.
As artists in residence, the ensemble has already clocked up an impressive list of performances to high acclaim and Monday’s program was nothing if not demanding.
Nineteenth Century French composer Charles Gounod’s Petite Symphonie, one of two symphonies he composed, was light and airy, paying considerable homage to his classical forebears such as Haydn and Mozart. The first two movements were pleasant enough, without reaching any great heights.
What was striking however, was the clarity of the sound, the high levels of musicianship and the impressive way in which this group filled a large venue that I’m used to hearing much larger ensembles perform at.
It was in the third and fourth movements where the piece really came to life with the flute elevated above the accompanying oboes, clarinets, French horns, and bassoons.
German composer Louis Spohr was a friend and colleague of Beethoven’s. His Grand Nonetto is one of the earliest known pieces written for a combination of violin, viola, cello, and bass with wind quintet and was the only piece on the program that featured strings.
Having never been exposed to this set-up before, I can say that there were engaging parts and those that were less so. Spohr was a prodigious composer for strings, penning 18 violin concertos, and the string section wove in seamlessly with the winds to once again produce a sound that impressed given the number of musicians on stage. Violinist Ike See particularly stood out for me and has the look and sound of a future star.
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was always going to be the highlight of the night. As one of the great tomes of the classical canon, much of the audience I imagine shared my intrigue as to how a group of nine musicians sans strings was going to pull it off.
Given the sheer fame of this piece there were no shortage of ways that it could have gone wrong and my initial thought was that it sounded a bit like a recording of a full orchestral version coming through one channel of an amplifier.
After that relatively short period of adjustment, however, the long, expansive introduction of the first movement allowed the clarinets, bassoons, and oboes to fill those fabulous string lines in a way that was strangely compelling and equally melodic in an unusual kind of way.
The second movement relies as heavily on strings as just about any movement of a Beethoven Symphony, but by this stage I was simply enjoying it for what it was. This ensemble was carrying a tune and doing it extremely well.
The final two movements are renowned for their sheer joyousness – the lively scherzo of the third and the anthemic nature of the fourth. Once again I was not disappointed, even though the final movement seemed to be strangely truncated at the beginning.
Overall this was an enthralling and ambitious rendition where the ensemble made no attempt to substitute for the vast numbers of instruments missing but instead captured the essence of the transcription through its exemplary clarity of sound and ability to capture all of the piece’s major melodic lines.
For those that have yet to witness the Omega Ensemble, I can say that this was a rewarding experience that I would gladly partake of again.