Review: Heartstrings (Camerata)

Camerata performs Heartstrings at the QPAC Concert Hall, with guest pianist Alex Raineri, photographed by Alex Jamieson

Camerata opened their 2023 season with Heartstrings, a collection of romantic and passionate pieces from Europe and North America. The program was curated by Camerata Artistic Director and Principal Violin Brendan Joyce, and the Brisbane concert was dedicated to former Chair, and one of the first two women to graduate from electrical engineering at the University of Queensland, Ms Else Shepherd AM.

Camerata is an unconducted chamber orchestra, and the ensemble looked to the first violin when a cue was required. The musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves throughout the concert, which always makes for a more enjoyable experience in the audience as well. Lighting design by Richard “Zak” Harrison also changed for each piece and added to the visual dynamism of the performance.

Camerata performs Heartstrings at the QPAC Concert Hall, photographed by Alex Jamieson

Heartstrings opened with Frank Martin’s rhythmic Etudes for Strings, No.2, performed pizzicato (plucking on the strings, not using bows), and it was interesting to watch the finger work of the musicians using this technique.

Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, originally composed for string orchestra in 2012 and arranged for chamber ensemble by Jannina Norpoth in 2020, was next, and my personal favourite from the concert. Montgomery was named Musical America’s 2023 Composer of the Year, and her music interweaves classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, poetry, and social consciousness. A one-movement work, Starburst was sharp and quick, evolving smoothly and continuously as it played on the imagery of rapidly changing musical colours.

Camerata performs Heartstrings at the QPAC Concert Hall, photographed by Alex Jamieson

Tchaikovsky’s expressive Serenade for Strings was played with passion and precision, taking the audience on a journey from the unhurried opening movement, through the charming Valse and the rising tension of the Elegia, drawing together for a sweet and bright Finale. In his program note, Brendan Joyce shared that this piece was performed by Camerata in 1990, unconducted and live-to-air for ABC Classic FM, and cited this as a formative moment.

Camerata performs Heartstrings at the QPAC Concert Hall, photographed by Alex Jamieson

The concert concluded with Aaron Copland’s quintessentially American Appalachian Spring, an eight-movement suite originally composed as a ballet, commissioned by influential modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Copland later arranged Appalachian Spring as an orchestral suite, although the narrative arcs of the ballet remain, telling the story of a young farm couple as they marry and set up a home in 1900s Pennsylvania.

The first movement, Very slowly, was a gentle entry to the piece, followed by the livelier second movement Fast. The third movement, Moderate, was slower and more sombre, then back to cheerful strings, suggestive of town square dancing, and the return of the woodwinds, light and bright in the fourth movement, also titled Fast. In the fifth movement, Still faster, pizzicato added intensity before Very slowly (as at first) did indeed return to the softness of the first movement. The seventh movement, Calm and flowing, contained five improvisations on the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, initially sung by a solo clarinet and then evolving, becoming more textured and varied as the movement progressed. The eight, and final, movement, Moderate, was quiet, slow, and steady, tapering to silence from the flute and strings.

Camerata performs Heartstrings at the QPAC Concert Hall, with guest pianist Alex Raineri, photographed by Alex Jamieson

Guest pianist Alex Raineri also performed two short Copland pieces: the wistful and nostalgic Long Ago, and the fast-paced, high-energy Hoe Down. I had seen the latter performed by Queensland Symphony Orchestra as part of their Dance Around the World concert a couple of weeks before, so it was especially interesting to see this performed for solo piano – each note felt precise, despite the quick pace. The piano was arranged onstage so that Raineri faced the audience, which unfortunately rendered his hands invisible.

Following enthusiastic applause, Camerata returned to the stage to perform a pizzicato encore; Leroy Anderson’s Plink, Plank, Plunk was quick and fun, with the violinists sliding their hands along the bodies of their instruments, and other instruments interjecting.

Heartstrings was a stirring program of pieces for strings, performed by the Camerata musicians with all of the passion and character that these pieces evoked.

Camerata’s next concert will be From My Homeland, featuring didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton and violinist Véronique Serret. Playing at Empire Theatres, Toowoomba, on 25 May and QPAC Concert Hall, South Bank, on 26 May 2023.

Heartstrings was performed at Empire Theatres, Toowoomba, on 23 February 2023 and at the QPAC Concert Hall on 25 February 2023.

Click here for more information about Camerata, Queensland’s chamber orchestra, including their upcoming concerts

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