BWW Review: THE BEST OF BRITISH Presented A Mix Of Well Known And Obscure Works

Reviewed by Ewart Shaw, Sunday 20th September 2015

Whether the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, makes Australia a republic before Christmas, or not, we will still remain a member of the British Commonwealth, the fifty four nations large and small that pay tribute to the glorious and generous way the British took over most of the world, and then got a bit ashamed about empire building. It's predominantly Anglophone, though Rwanda joined a few years ago. We will probably still have a branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society, whose musical ensemble have begun making a name for themselves, not just for imaginative programming, but essentially for supporting young musicians.

This enjoyable Sunday afternoon concert was entitled The Best of British, featuring the RCS Ensemble, led by Wendy Heiligenberg violin and Linda Pirie flute, with Esther Chea and Lester Wong, violins, Asha Stephenson, viola and Jacqueline Findlay, 'cello making up the core quartet.

In the nineteenth century Britain was often derided as a land 'ohne musik', a land without music, and perhaps compared to continental Europe there was a grain of truth. In the twentieth century, thanks to Edward Elgar, things began to change.

With one exception, and he was only a naturalized Briton, all the composers in the Best of Britain flourished in the first half of the twentieth century, and this program of one well known piece, several unfairly neglected works, and a real curiosity, made a very pleasant, if perhaps a slightly long, afternoon in a neglected venue, The Meeting Hall in Flinders Street, technically situated behind Pilgrim Church and close to Pirie Street.

From the outside, it resembles a church or chapel, and inside, one spacious room, with two elaborate chandeliers and an unusually shaped stage which narrows as it recedes into a wedge shape, with an acoustic challenge built into its fabric.

Despite the City to Bay charity run, and a concert by Adelaide Baroque performing almost simultaneously in North Adelaide, there was a good sized audience, though some of them should restrain their tendency to wander during the performance and have sotto voce conversations. Hint. The works were introduced by the venerable Margaret Lord, one of those Adelaide women whose constant support for our musical life is invaluable, irreplaceable, and never recognized. Libby Ellis, who I know from Co*opera, the newly appointed Chair of the RCS, is another.

The Finzi bagatelles lived up to their name as charming little pieces, which the composer had to recognize as his most popular work. The quite demanding solo writing for the clarinet held no difficulties for Amanda Home's eloquent playing, but the curious stage shape meant that, for a few moments in the opening movement, the sound from the string quartet, bouncing across the stage became strident, but a rapid adjustment meant the rest of the work was nicely balanced.

The Elegiac trio for flute, viola and harp, Linda Pirie, flute, Asha Stephenson, viola, and Carolyn Burgess, harp, by Sir Arnold Bax, was a deeply felt piece, and in a program that might appear jingoistically to celebrate Britishness, was a response by the composer, an Erinophile, to mark the bloody outcome of the 1916 Uprising.

Joshua Oates was the oboist in the Britten Phantasy quartet, the first of two relatively youthful works by the second or third greatest British composer of the twentieth century, a structurally complex piece of writing with intense dark colours in the strings, certainly the most emotionally intense work of the program, in a convincing performance. The final pieces in the first half would both have benefited from a larger body of strings. The sweetly elegant Salut d'Amour of Sir Edward Elgar, with Esther Chea as the violin soloist, and the best known work of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the Fantasia on Greensleeves. I didn't know it was actually an arrangement by someone called R Greaves. You live and learn.

In the interval, coffee, tea biscuits and cakes were available in the Pilgrim Church hall. Very pleasant.

The second half began with a real curiosity, indeed a work so unlikely as to count as eccentric, by Gordon Jacob, in which the string ensemble was joined by baritone, Jeremy Tatchell, in Union Jack bowtie. Bowties are cool.

Tatchell walked out on stage and declaimed, in his best RSC voice, lines from The Merchant of Venice, summoning musicians, who then joined him on stage. Jacob chose words about music from Shakespeare's plays and poems, which were then interpreted by the players. It was most unusual, and with some quite engaging harmonies in the instrumental writing. Next time, the organisers should get Tatchell to sing, possibly the setting of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach by Samuel Barber. The members of the core quartet and Wendy Heiligenberg played The Simple Symphony of Benjamin Britten, with great energy, the Sentimental Sarabande being particularly fine. Having only four players on stage meant that the pizzicato challenges of the first movement were easily surmounted.

The final work was the perfect ending. It brought Penelope Cashman onto the stage to play the harpsichord, which had been sitting a little neglectedly in the corner. It's like guns in movies, if you bring one out, someone has to play it. Okay, it did sound as if the composer had just shuffled pages of his most typical works in the genre of concerto grosso, but its blend of baroque formality and vitality meant that the instantly recognizable music of Handel, in this case the Concerto Grosso Opus 3 number 10, curiously stated as having been composed in 1946, sent me home whistling its opening tune. Joshua Oates's fluent oboe playing sailed over the small string ensemble with joy.

As I threaded my way round the corners to get to the venue, I found a guy, probably homeless, sitting on a bench by Pilgrim Church, in shorts, wearing a Union Jack tee-shirt, synchronicity rather than marketing, I suspect

Oh yes, Libby Ellis exhorted us to consider joining the RCS, who do great work for young people around the commonwealth. I'm probably a bit young but, while it sounds like a slightly nostalgic backward looking organization, it has plans for Adelaide music and supports young musicians. All good things, and I was a boy scout after all, so I've sworn allegiance to the Queen already.

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