Music @ St James’ under Head of Music Warren Trevelyan-Jones seems to be going from strength to strength. Added to the already respected choral tradition of the church and regular Wednesday lunchtime concerts, this year brings a new subscription series, a festival celebrating the Spanish renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, new relationships with Sydney Symphony Chamber Players and Ironwood as well as an upgraded Bach in the Dark series presented by irrepressible cellist Rachel Scott and friends. Check it all out at www.sjks.org.au .
This week’s lunchtime concert, by the Chanterelle String Quartet was a delightful interlude: a carefully selected program designed to soothe the furrowed brows of harried city centre workers, while being short enough to allow a quick sandwich and short walk to and from the office, all well within the hour. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise that the quartet played with admirable precision, the members all being Sydney Symphony string players with extensive chamber music experience. Sisters Fiona and Leone Ziegler played violin with Jane Hazelwood on viola and Fenella Gill on cello.
The program opened with a beautifully nuanced performance of Mozart’s Quartet in B flat K159. Written in 1773 when he was 17 years old this quartet is very simple in structure, yet most attractive to listen to, at least as played by Chanterelle. There was lightness of touch and excellent balance, along with care in bringing out the subtleties so important in Mozart’s music. It is not easy to get the sound right in the bright acoustic of St James’. Chanterelle got it to perfection.
The second piece, a Porgy and Bess Suite arranged by Ernst-Thilo Kalke was quite a contrast. Kalke, a German arranger and composer, put together five of Gershwin’s best songs in a neatly organised suite that would have been happily received by ladies taking tea at a German spa. Strangely it also worked quite well in the more sombre surrounds of a Greenway interior in Sydney’s oldest church building. Your correspondent, however, got the feeling the players were too polite, producing everything precisely as Kalke had written: occasional tempo variations, a glissando here and there, but in the end were insufficiently robust and gutsy. The performance would have been enhanced by a little more freedom, bringing out the cultural elements from which Gershwin drew his inspiration. African American gospel songs, even in satire such as “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, need a free, hearty and perhaps sometimes bucolic rendition for good effect. Maybe string quartets, not being known for letting themselves go, are not the ideal ensembles for this music.
The final work, Bukovina Odyssey, by composer Stephen Lalor (who is better known in Sydney as a mandolin specialist) drew on Moldavian folk traditions. It was, we were informed, written as a birthday present for Fiona Ziegler, one which, on hearing, she would surely have been touched to receive. Opening with a “col legno” passage, the lower strings take up a theme in folkish mode which then develops with interesting ideas and is tossed around between the four players. Then follows a more intense, syncopated, section, which has no sooner excited the listener’s interest than it abruptly ends. It is indeed a short odyssey. The journey, though short, contained enough spirit to warrant more. Perhaps Lalor will consider pushing the boat out and writing a second movement for Ms Ziegler’s next birthday.