Ensemble Liaison Concert Review

The first of the concerts on the 2022 NECOM and Musica Viva Armidale program took place on Thursday May 12 in the Old Teachers’ College Auditorium, and the hall was packed out to hear one of Australia’s national treasures, Ensemble Liaison. The artists of this internationally acclaimed chamber trio are Timothy Young (pianist), David Griffiths (clarinettist) and his wife, Svetlana Bogosavljevic (cellist). Timothy is Head of Piano and Resident Artist at the Australian National Academy of Music, David is Associate Professor of Music (clarinet) at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and Svetlana is teaching cello and chamber music at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University. Details of their stellar careers can be read on their website-https://www.ensembleliaison.com/. They only just made it in time to perform as their plane trip from Melbourne took 28 hours! You guessed it: Armidale airport was closed just before they were to land, due to poor weather, so back to Sydney they went for another try! But this hiccup in no way affected their extraordinary playing in this wonderful concert.

It was 18 years ago that they formed Ensemble Liaison, and they now “understand each other at a very deep level”, as David Griffiths put it in his fascinating pre-concert talk. Such long experience playing together and the complete mastery of technique they each demonstrated on their instrument, meant we heard chamber music at its very best. They also engaged so well with the audience, being relaxed and happy to share their art and lacing their remarks with self-effacing humour. The warmth between them and their obvious enjoyment of playing together created a particularly uplifting atmosphere in the hall, reminiscent of a happy family gathering. There was a form of family pride and joy too, in many attendees, who recalled David as that gifted youngster winning innumerable prizes in the Armidale eisteddfod. He was born and received his early musical education here in Armidale.

One of the problems the newly formed trio faced was that there were few works written for the combination of piano, clarinet and cello! The solution: they started commissioning pieces and making their own arrangements of works. They also wanted to be inspired by playing with other fine artists from all over the world. Their annual concert series “Ensemble Liaison and Friends” enabled them to invite all manner of world-renowned artists to play with them. This included a puppeteer, opera singers, dancers, choirs, a jazz drummer, an accordion player and even a Tibetan Bowl player, to name but a few! This brilliant solution has kept them excited and passionate about playing. Their very name, Ensemble Liaison, reflects their desire to share their skills with other artists.

Ensemble Liaison is also renowned for their innovative programming and on Thursday, they presented an array of works designed to appeal to both classical and nonclassical music lovers. First up was a short piece by Tim Young (his “first-ever official composition”)-a Fantasy on Beethoven’s Für Elise. One hopes he will continue composing because this was a beautifully constructed piece. He said that imagining David and Svetlana playing allowed the piece to grow organically and he deftly exploited the different timbres of the three instruments, whilst all the harmonic progressions were taken from Beethoven’s work. Well, who better to borrow from! That opening motif (that everyone recognises) kept reappearing, and this unified the work. All the parts were virtuosic in character with some marvellous climaxes and a very exciting finale.

The second item was composed in a post minimalist style by Giovanni Sollima (Italian.b.1962)-a duet called Il bell’Antonio for piano and cello. This powerful work held me breathless throughout with its intensity. Its huge climax seemed to express unbearable pain as the cello played in its highest register as though it was screaming, before the sudden silence that released the tension before are turn to the opening quiet passages.

Then came the 4 Rags for 2 Jons by the American pianist and composer, John Novacek, a delightful contrast as it was deliciously funny! Novacek admired Scott Joplin, (remember The Entertainer) and composed many rags himself in his late teens and early twenties. More recently he has been reworking them for different groups, and he met up with Ensemble Liaison in Melbourne. The 4 Rags is four pieces in different ragtime styles and Novacek sent them up by greatly exaggerating their characteristics. Such things as increasing the tempo nearly to the point of loss of control, with the pianist’s hands jumping all over the keyboard and the clarinettist going red in the face as he plays ever higher and faster until he cries out loud in desperation (this is in the score). And his use of huge dynamic contrasts, sudden surprise accents, mighty glissandos, and two different keys sounding at the same time–all made for hilarity. David and Tim were having tremendous fun with the pieces. They were obviously fiendishly difficult to play however, and as they left the stage they were beaming because they had made it through intact! And so were the audience members, because the ride for us had been like a crazy roller-coaster…

The major work of the evening introduced by David as “now the serious part of the program” was Brahms’ Trio for piano, cello and clarinet, Opus.11, composed in 1891. It was in fact “the work that brought us together originally” and their familiarity with, and love of, this piece, made for an extraordinary performance. A friend of Brahms at the time of its composition, wrote – “It is as though the instruments were in love with one another” (quoted in Wikipedia).That impression was achieved by small melodic and rhythmic motifs being passed from one instrument to another, and in the way the clarinet or cello started a melody that was then completed by the other, with the piano then imitating this interplay. The work clearly requires the sort of understanding between the players that Ensemble Liaison has achieved over the years.

The final work, Trio Marlenita, described as “ridiculously hard” (David) was one they commissioned from John Novacek. It was in the style of Columbian folk music with complex rhythms and lots of syncopation demanding the sort of tight ensemble work for which this trio is renowned.

As encores, they played two works – one by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, and an arrangement of a Klezma tune, both of which confirmed how well they understand different genres of music.

Inge Southcott