Strolling on High Street before the concert I was reminded that both the 370 and the 400 buses go past Gate 9 of the University of New South Wales, and that Anzac Parade offers even more options, which means that it is really very easy for the non-driver to get to the Sir John Clancy Auditorium (and the return can be done in about an hour, even on a Saturday night). But somehow it has always seemed like an insurmountable hassle, with packed lunch required. Which is probably why I hadn't been to an Australia Ensemble concert in about ten years, the last concert being one they did with Boris Berman.
The obstruction, I'll admit, is mainly a psychological one on my part, and it's a pity, since the Australia Ensemble has some interesting and varied programming that I'd enjoy if I were willing to haul myself out to their venue. Unless the performances are of the knock-your-socks-off variety, I'm not the kind to enjoy whole evenings of string quartets (pace Musica Viva), so the idea of a permanent chamber music ensemble that can perform in different subsets within the one program as well as augment for larger scale pieces is a very appealing one.
One of the attractions of Saturday's program was the promise of a new piece by Roger Smalley, whose music I admire and enjoy very much. A colleague had been assuring me that said new piece would not be ready and in my heart I knew that this was very likely right, but I went with a tiny degree of hope, based on the ensemble's website, which still listed the premiere of a "new work". [Word to concert administrators everywhere: unless it's a truly eleventh-hour change, update the program online and let the audience know what they can look forward to.] A brief explanation of the program change and promise of future performance of the new work was buried in the body of the program notes. Insiders sitting in the row behind added more via some indiscreet talk. As it turned out, we heard Poles Apart, a really rewarding piece, right from the amazing effect of the opening cello plus bass clarinet gesture. I wasn't disappointed.
The performance of the Trout Quintet that followed was in every way attractive, but seemed restrained to the point of primness. I wished the performance could have projected more of a sense of the idea put forward by the program annotator: "The Trout Quintet bears every sign of having been written for the spontaneous delight of its first performers." This piece might not be Schubert's greatest work but it can be a lot of fun if you let it.
The first half verged on being too long. An interval sugar hit was necessary and I was glad that something deep in my hippocampus had prompted me to bring a snack. The nostalgic second half (Sculthorpe's Small Town in a string quartet version and the suite from Appalachian Spring) was slightly shorter but augmented by the Australia Ensemble's launch of their 2009 season. This began with an introduction from Dene Olding in which he made a quip about the other musicians resuming their seats ("I'm not going to talk for that long!"). But they were right to do so, because Roger Covell then joined them onstage to talk about the season in more detail.
Given that it's launch season all over the country, I'm finding myself in a perpetual state of envy these days. First the WASO gets its musicians, artistic administrator and chief conductor on stage in the finest concert hall in the country and gives a launch that includes live orchestral music and is open to subscribers. The Australia Ensemble's season was also introduced by someone directly engaged with the programming – candid, unscripted, all about the music, rich in cross-references (Maurice Guest no less), non-corporate in tone, and again, in the presence of the people for whom the ensemble ultimately exists: its audience. To be fair, an ensemble with a subscription base of perhaps 500 (no more than will fit in a 700-seat hall, anyway) and only six programs a year can do this quite easily. But it's not an impossible call for a larger outfit.