The Omega Ensemble launched their ambitious and very busy 2018 Season last week. Two concert series, plus a festival appearance and a chamber opera casually dropped into the mix, adds up to what looks to be an exciting year. Omega’s programming revolves, inevitably, around the instruments of co-artistic directors David Rowden (clarinet) and Maria Raspopova (piano). This pulls the repertoire into some zany areas — who knew Elgar wrote a Romance for bassoon and strings, or that Bruch wrote clarinet trios? — but also drives a diligent hunt for new repertoire. In 2018, they premiere works from composers including Samuel Hogarth, Ian Munro and David Bruce. Lee Abrahamsen returns with songs by Poulenc and Alexandra Osborne, acting assistant concertmaster of the Washington-based National Symphony Orchestra, appears in several of the string-y programs. I recommend you take a look, especially at their Master Series, presented in the intimate setting of the Utzon Room.
Before we get to next year, however, last week’s A Brahms Affair. For this, their latest gig at City Recital Hall, Omega presented a swirl of Romanticism: Schumann, Borodin and Brahms. Rowden and Raspopova gave a mostly glossy performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestucke for Clarinet and Piano, but a few hiccups — intonation and notes — took the edge off the shine. Alexandra Osborne led Borodin’s String Quartet No. 1 in A Major with a similarly fastidious approach, making a gloriously clear sound in the opening movement. However, there was something about the ensemble’s care and attention which made the performance somewhat introverted. Which is fine in a rehearsal space, but less so on stage. It wasn’t so much a lack of sound as a lack of connection — between the stage and audience, and between the players themselves. The second movement was hushed, the harmonics of the final movement were wonderfully ethereal but, ultimately, it felt like four individuals, playing to themselves. At this point the City Recital Hall felt very big and lonely.
Brahms’ Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings was more successful, with Rowden’s clarinet leading the way with mellifluous warmth, in spite of some technology problems. Again, though, there seemed to be something holding the music back, moderately the big climaxes, as if unwilling to unleash the full excesses of the Romantic soul. Happily their encore, the final movement from Weber’s Clarinet Quintet, unlocked a sense of joy, bringing the concert to an exhilarating close.