A Sunday afternoon in Sydney, and we are spoilt for choice. Orchestra Romantique is playing Berlioz and Weber, while over at the Conservatorium it’s the music of Elena Kats-Chernin. The classical music doomsayers would predict an audience stretched to the limit. Can’t tell you how it was at the Con, but Paddington Town Hall was busy and full, with a nice cross-section of ages from anklebiters to white wizards.
Ever since I saw Nicholas Carter conducting a Mozart in the City concert I’ve been keen to see what he does with bigger forces. He’s a youngster, by conducting standards, and just about to enter the dreaded grey zone — that period when you are too old to be a ‘young artist’ and too young to have gravitas. I suspect it’s also a period which coincides with mortgages, small children and other major life expenditures. It’s good to see from his bio that he has scored an assistant conductor spot at Hamburg Opera (with compatriot Simone Young). Well, good for him. Not so good for Sydney, which loses a good one.
Orchestra Romantique is an impressive vote of confidence in the talent of Nicholas Carter. A full orchestra — quadruple wind, two harps, serpent and ophicleide — of professionals have given up two weekends to play more music, and they all looked thrilled to be there. As for the music, it wasn’t perfect, but it was a damn fine stab at two fiendish (in every sense of the word) works, with a curio thrown in for good measure.
Nick Byrne (who is one of the driving forces behind Orchestra Romantique) found an ophicleide in the Sydney Symphony crypt, presumably the same one that Cliff Goodchild (Paul’s dad) had. Cliff told me he got it from James Waldersee, and that it had ‘Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 1910’ engraved on it. (Is it the same one, Nick?) Anyway, having found the ophicleide, the obvious next step for Nick was to find a way to get it back on the stage. This concert featured Jules Dermersseman’s Introduction and Polonaise for Ophicleide and Orchestra, with Nick Byrne as soloist.
It was a very likeable but – I have to admit – not totally convincing work. Nick Byrne produced a lovely, sweet sound, like a cross between a French horn and a bassoon in character, but when the score called for virtuosic flourishes the notes got a bit lost. I suspect the real problem is that the ophicleide is not really a soloistic instrument – it doesn’t have the volume or the extremes of range of its successors so, like some Australian fauna, it has been superseded by its more in-your-face cousins, like the saxaphone, tuba and cane toad. Where it does sound great is in the timbral mix of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz keeps his ophicleides and serpents in reserve till the chilling final movements, but when he uses them they add a whole new colour .
As for the performance, I’m not going to pick it apart or make comparisons with other orchestras. Apart from anything else, Paddington Town Hall is a very different space to, say, the Opera House Concert Hall. What I will say is that Nick Carter brought it all together, in all its complexity, with a hugely impressive flair, allowing this band of fine musicians to play their hearts out. The violins in particular had a heavy load to carry — only seven desks versus all those brass. Kristian Winther is a fine leader, and their chords in the ‘March to the Scaffold’ had a wonderful, thick bloom to them. They also took on the overture, Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to Oberon with fearless gusto — and there is plenty to fear in there. It sounded great.
Meanwhile, at the back of the hall the brass and wind looked and sounded like they were having a fun time. The period trumpets and trombones, combined with ophis and serpent, introduced a gritty, rumbly texture to the grand welter of sound, like the throaty roar of an old sports car. And as the daughter of a bassoon player, I can confirm that every single note of that dastardly solo was there, played by Andrew Barnes and his crack team with almost gleeful virtuosity.
Congratulations to all, and let’s hope that this brave new orchestra can continue to build on its encouraging beginnings. And can I put in a request? Loved the ophicleide, loved the serpent. Next time, can you dig up a sarrusophone?