Omega Ensemble: Continuum

Omega Ensemble has done it again! In February, the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon reverberated to the sound of William Barton’s didgeridoo as part of their “Two Breaths” program, leaving the audience almost breathless with admiration for his virtuosic kills and the creative imagination of his composition Gift – Our Breath of Life. This time, the phenomenal artistry of another Indigenous Australian left us in much the same state as Dr Lou Bennett wove her magic with nyernur, nyakur – to hear, to see, featured in their “Continuum” program.

Bennett might not be as familiar as Barton to classical music audiences, but she is certainly making her mark. Listeners who had attended the Australian String Quartet’s concert in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall two nights previously may well have experienced an unexpected sense of continuity as Bennett has worked closely with this quartet in collaboration with Ian Grandage, whom she acknowledges for his “sublime contributions” in the “Continuum” program notes. On Thursday night, we had the enormous privilege of watching her perform in person rather than hearing the pre-recorded version used in earlier performances of her work. This whole concert was being recorded for broadcast on ABC radio, but if ever there was a persuasive argument for attending concerts in person, this was it – especially as her performance defies adequate description.

The taped (by Bennett) sound of bird calls could be heard as clarinetist David Rowden, violinist Alexandra Osborne, cellist Paul Stender and pianist Vatche Jambazian took their places. Clothed in a black garment with a white circular design, a white half-mask outline painted on her face, Bennett followed to perch on a stool in the middle behind a microphone. The piece began with a slow, dark cello line joined by the voice in almost elegiac mood. Anguished cries came from the violin then a softly brooding clarinet soared into an outburst evocative of klezmer emotional effect. As voice and instruments wove together and instruments played alone in various combinations of trios and duets – violin and cello in a quasi tango dance of tears at one point – Bennett circled her hands as she sang with warm depth of tone and listened. Sometimes she swayed slightly, smiling gently as she undulated and fluttered her hands as an expressive extension of the inner impulse – never extravagant, always with a kind of authentic modesty. There was a connection apparent with the work that began the concert: Arvo Pärt’s lean, meditative Spiegel im Spiegel and what he said about it: “Just like the composer has to reduce his ego when writing the music, the musician too must put his ego aside when performing the piece”. This seemed to be exactly what Lou Bennett had done. At the end of the performance, she closed her eyes, bowed her head and listened to the bird calls that had begun the piece and had been a source of inspiration.

As a Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung composer, Bennett’s music is deeply connected to Indigenous language retrieval, reclamation and regeneration. The program notes gave no translation of language except for the title – but it didn’t matter. The work was intensely moving and brought many listeners to their feet in the prolonged ovation that followed this extraordinary performance – grateful that Omega Ensemble had commissioned this work.

Many members of the capacity audience would have been attracted to this concert by Olivier Messiaen’s iconic work Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of Time). Even without knowing the legendary circumstances of its composition in a Silesian prisoner-of-war camp during 1940-41, this work is one that transfixes. The Book of Revelations provided the title for the eight-movement masterpiece as the angel decrees “There shall be time no longer”. Various combinations of instruments come to the fore as moods change from swirling energy to long-breathed calm. The opening movement, for all four instruments, provided the perfect transition from Bennett’s work as the solo clarinet imitated a blackbird’s song and the violin a nightingale’s. Rowden’s clarinet was supremely well-controlled in this and in the exacting clarinet solo Abîme des Oiseaux (Abyss of the Birds). As with his warm honeyed tones in the Pärt, Stender excelled in the warm flowing lines of so much of the Messiaen, most notably what the composer called the “infinitely slow” cello part of the fifth movement. Some beautifully textured lower notes were heard from the violin, particularly in the final movement. It was in this movement that a sense of ensemble was most clearly evident and added substantially to its impact. The piano had been stridently metallic for some of the loudest upper notes in the Pärt, but in even the most vigorous passages of the Messiaen, Jambazian was at one with the tonal fabric.

Another enthusiastic ovation greeted what was a memorable performance by Omega Ensemble. While the Salon has the advantage of being an intimate space, it was a pity more people could not be fitted in to enjoy it.

Photo courtesy Omega Ensemble.


Heather Leviston reviewed “Continuum”, performed by Omega Ensemble and Dr Lou Bennett in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon on April 28, 2022.

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