There is no doubt that “A Little Lunch Music”, the Kathy Selby curated lunchtime series at the City Recital Hall is one of the great successes of the Sydney classical music scene. It has what it takes in the twenty first century: timeliness, brevity, value for money, focus, a touch of education and quality performers, all pushed along by a consummate promoter. That is Selby of course, not so much CRH, although they do their bit. What’s more you can eat your sandwich in the hall if you wish. This should be a great “come along”, but it was pointed out recently that, in fact, few people do munch along with the music. Perhaps this says something for the performances.
Last Tuesday, Kathy Selby presented, and performed in, an all Mozart program by the Sydney Camerata: the KV271 piano concerto “Jeunehomme” and then the KV385 Haffner Symphony, neatly picked to fit precisely into the hour available. It was good programming.
The Sydney Camerata is a small chamber orchestra, established in 2008 by, principally, students from the Sydney Conservatorium, many of whom, according to Artistic Director Mathisha Pangoda, also came through Australian Youth Orchestra programs. According to Mathisha, questioned by Kathy Selby between works, the orchestra is “made up of professional musicians, but is not a professional orchestra”. If, by this, he means they do not expect to make any money, but mostly play for the pleasure of it, then welcome to the club. But he should accept the performance responsibilities of a professional group. There are no excuses.
The performance by Kathy Selby in the piano concerto was well delivered. Beautiful articulation and none of the heaviness with which she is sometimes charged. The first movement cadenza was delightful; she brought out well the changes in moods in both the second and third movements, having set a cracking pace at the outset of the final movement that might have challenged a lesser performer. What then of the accompaniment? The ensemble was eleven strings, two horns and two oboes. Perfect for the purpose, but perhaps not perfect in the execution. The notes were played, the dynamics followed, but in truth the skills of a refined accompaniment were somewhat lacking. It may be hard for a young professional group, without truly experienced and forceful conductor or leader to produce the intuition, sensitivity and warmth that a good accompaniment demands. There are all those boring notes. How to make each one warm or welcoming, intense or expectant? Someone seemed to have suggested playing with no, or very little vibrato. This is probably not a good idea for Mozart. It certainly affects the string tone. There is great mystery at the beginning of the second movement of the concerto. The strings missed this by a wide margin. And the light and shade as the final movement progressed through its stages was underdone.
The Haffner Symphony, with more strings and full brass and woodwind, suffered from similar shortcomings. Nothing wrong with the notes, the intonation and the dynamics mind, but the nuances were lost in part in a quest for speed. The middle movements lacked emotional intensity. There was nothing to notice but the bland presentation of Mozart’s notes. Nothing there to shout: “listen guys, we are good; you have to come and hear us again”.
So, the question must be begged: what makes a chamber orchestra exciting, intense and different? The Australian Chamber Orchestra knows. The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra has a pretty good idea too. What the young professionals of the Sydney Camerata need to consider are the lessons and questions that four of their number received from Pekka Kuusisto at the recent Musica Viva Festival. It is necessary to communicate something different, something intense, perhaps something wild and out of the ordinary. Decide what to do and deliver it with commitment, as if there is no other way. Play like every phrase is life or death. It must be felt by every one of the members of the ensemble, and each must be acutely aware of their fellow musicians in delivering a unique performance. The Sydney Camerata has the basic skills. They just need to ramp them up to the next level. Show their audience they are indeed a professional orchestra to be reckoned with. Even if they don’t make any money.