Illuminations (Camerata – Queensland Chamber Orchestra and QPAC)


The Camerata concert Illuminations takes its name from the vibrant cycle of songs by Benjamin Britten, composed for string orchestra and soprano voice, and using the vocal lines of the surrealist poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. The program also included the ever-popular and evocative Elgar Serenade for strings and Debussy’s splendid String Quartet, the latter in a brand new arrangement for chamber symphony rather than the original four instruments. This thoughtful and carefully programmed string concert presented a wonderful blend of English refinement (compositions by Britten and Elgar) alongside the delicacy of French Impressionist music and poetry, with the ravishing soundscapes of Debussy and the vivid poetry of early works of Rimbaud. The fusion of French and English Symbolist musical works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries offered a winning combination that perfectly captured the mood and style of the departure from classical harmony. This fusion was also well explained by artistic director Brendan Joyce and double bass player Marion Heckenberg in their introductions to the works.

Camerata – Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra and Sofia Troncoso perform Illuminations, 2022. Photo © Alex Jamieson

The program began with Edward Elgar’s Serenade for strings in E minor, op. 20, in three short movements. The sensuous, soothing music in this beautiful work masterfully exemplifies the range of textural colors that can be achieved by a string ensemble, giving all instruments the chance to shine. Although both bright and energetic, the gentle Allegro piacevole is, as its name suggests, a peaceful and harmonious movement. It was played well in the main theme by the violins with a finely chiseled second motif from the viola and a glorious overall melody. The slowest Andante movement showed the most stunning and sustained melody from the violins, with excellent solos from the violins and lead viola. With his English pastoral accents and sense of expectation, the Allegretto offered a wonderful palette of orchestral colors from the orchestra with exceptional playing by the principals. A very nice performance.

This was followed by Debussy’s String Quartet, Op. 10, arranged by Gail Aitken as a chamber symphony, with augmented strings and the addition of double basses. Influenced by the preeminent Impressionist and Surrealist movements of the time in art and literature, Debussy’s extraordinary gift for conveying musical colors of such intensity and dynamism to the listener makes him one of the of his most popular works. The Allegro, with its many diverse themes and some first-rate main games, included exhilarating ensemble work. The fast movement Scherzo was frenetic and bursting with orchestral color. The pizzicato fiddles and viola responses were handled well, with lovely growling cellos and somber beats from the double basses. The slowest Andantino movement gave us delicate phrasing and dreamy, sultry solos from the violins, which were hauntingly beautiful and well matched by the violas. The slow cello that opened the Presto leads gently in a rapprochement of the whole with several animated and fast sound layers. Many racy repetitions allowed the work to end on a positively bright and optimistic end.

Aitken’s arrangements have been masterfully rearranged to highlight the solo sections of the original string quartet, while giving the violins, violas, cellos and two additional basses significant involvement. The musicians were exemplary and played exceptionally well throughout, particularly the solo sections, but this new arrangement also seemed like an entirely different work, lacking the concentrated beauty and force of the original. The intensity and power of Debussy’s quartet for two violins, viola and cello, where each instrument shines individually while the musical and harmonic tensions between the players are crisp and bright, seemed less well defined in this new chamber symphonic version, yet well played.

by Britton The Illuminations Op. 18 for soprano and string orchestra was the last offering. Camerata made a habit of introducing a ‘joker’ mystery guest and tonight’s choice was local actor Morgan Francis, ably employed to read a translation of Rimbaud’s nine poems which Britten had set to music ahead of the presentation of the song cycle. It was inspired, otherwise the otherworldly weirdness of Rimbaud’s poems would have been lost on most listeners. Even so, and with no actual translation included in the program notes or projected on a supertitle screen, it was still disconcerting to reconcile the individual songs in French with the brief introduction we had heard beforehand.

Soprano Sofia Troncoso was a perfect choice to deliver this cycle, which she did with great aplomb and great attention to detail. It was difficult to understand his French but, given the nature of the content of the poems, perhaps it would have been just as difficult to grasp their intention in English. She sang with both passion and intense commitment, her strong and beautiful soprano solid throughout the range and delivering excellent top notes. What stood out was how much Britten wrote for the voice and how well this cycle is suited to the high soprano voice. Without a great understanding of the lyrics, it was still possible to understand the intensity of what was being sung – from the delightful royaltye, soft Phrasing and the haunting Interlude to the magnificent To be beautiful, the interrogator Parade and the sad ending Ddeparture. Camerata played well and in support, having the luxury of a fine and clever score for Britten’s strings.

All in all, it was a cleverly produced, well-thought-out concert delivered with excellent ensemble playing, including top-notch soloists in violinists Brendan Joyce, Jonny Ng and David Dalseno, with Thomas Chawner on viola and Karol Kowalik on cello.

Camerata plays Illuminations at the Ipswich Civic Center on July 8 and at the Empire Theatre, Toowoomba on July 9. Details here.

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