Awakening – a modest but apt title for a post lockdown emergence of Spring music in a magnificent heritage performance space. In the historic house and gardens of Beleura, a vibrant concert program is bringing outstanding young and established artists to a very creative and inspiring performance venue. Lockdown caused Beleura to postpone several concerts, but manager Martin Green was quick to re-schedule Australian National Academy of Music and jazz concerts, and annual Christmas musical theatre. Even Spring was slightly postponed to accommodate the Partridge Quartet today.
Fresh, exciting and inventive, the Partridge Quartet – comprising Natalia Harvey and Jos Janker (violins), Eunis Cheng (viola) and Daniel Smith (Cello) – was formed at the Australian National Academy of Music in 2017, and has now become a nationally recognised prize-winning chamber music group. They join the growing numbers of young musicians who are passionate advocates and promoters of chamber music written by emerging and established Australian composers.
The opening work, Plan and Elevation,was inspired by its creator’s love of architecture, space and form, and was also a response to the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, a stunning historic estate in Washington. (The parallel inspired comparisons with today’s venue; the similarly historic Beleura seemed a significant and meaningful co-incidence.) At the age of 30, prolific composer Caroline Shaw was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and she enjoyed being in residence at Dumbarton Oaks. Five movements – Ellipse, The Cutting Garden, The Herbaceous Border, The Orangerie, and Beech Tree, made up a fascinating suite of intriguing musical forms for this work. Classical sections of tonal chords – stately and reverential hymn-like short sections – were contrasted abruptly with contemporary pizzicato staccato pulses and solo instruments exploring new melodic shapes against varied timbral accompaniment and percussive interjections. Ostinato patterns gave a kind of solid framework, which contrasted with a variety of fragmented sections. Harmony and repose came from drone-like sustained notes, occasional harmonious chords and closing chordal passages, almost hymn-like and ancestral, providing repose when bursts of atonality and inventiveness challenged the musical design. The variety of changing elements and fractured short sections may have been a surprise to listeners more comfortable with development and flow, as the work seemed intellectually conceived, unique in design.
From the Partridge String Quartet came a terrific string tone, a beautiful musical interaction between solo and accompanying lines, a balanced ensemble, experienced artistry, plus a warm and charismatic connection with the audience. Having presented all of Richard Mills’ string quartets at the 2018 Port Fairy Spring Music Festival, and also having performed movements from his 4th Quartet in the 70th birthday Celebrations for this revered composer and conductor in Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, the Partridge Quartet were well versed in the complex language of Mills’ latest string quartet – Quartet No 5. And what a robust, full-bodied work this was, with highly textured orchestration, an exciting rhythmic flow, subtle melodic conversation between pairs of instruments, as well as being a technical showpiece for these four highly skilled musicians. Waves of soaring crescendos and diminuendos required blended sound and teamwork. There were gorgeous touches of lyricism and sections that contrasted capricious and helter-skelter activity with more peaceful, almost pastorale movement. The cello was given a range of interesting solo melodies across various pitch registers in Mills’ quite brilliantly orchestrated work, a work with multi-layered textures, emotion and expression, full of challenges, boldness, hope and promise.
Always a popular work, admired for its precision, clarity, colour and buoyancy, Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major is full of the rich new colours and fresh tones of Spring. Eunis Cheng embraced Ravel’s sensuous and rich writing for the viola, producing a big, well-rounded tone in the many assertive and leading melodies in this quartet. The well-known second movement, so unique with its colourful pizzicato and running and dancing cross rhythms, was just delightful. How easy it was to lose oneself in this magnificent venue surrounded by a magical web of Ravel’s gorgeous harmonic textures and shimmering violins in a lovely third movement. It was in the fourth and final movement that the Quartet proved their capabilities of exploding into a powerful tone, showing a huge variety of timbres, stronger emotional power and proving their reputation as a highly accomplished and popular ensemble.
And always, the after concert fine tea and petit fours in the grand mansion, meeting the musicians, celebrating live music again, provide the cherry on the cake!
Photo credit: Beleura
Julie McErlain reviewed “Awakening” performed by the Partridge String Quartet at Beleura House on December 2, 2021.