On each occasion that the Penny Quartet has visited Ballarat there has been a sense of expectation of something new and perhaps very different in the program. Last Sunday in the Anglican cathedral the quartet presented a concert of three contrasting contemporary works. The challenge of the unknown factor in new music may unsettle the listener yet rewards the adventurous.
Two Fragments for string quartet, written by Elliott Carter, opened the concert. The great American composer was known for his bold and uncompromising style. With the musicians playing only harmonics, with the occasional pizzicato interruption, the music slowly unfolded, with just a hint of traditional melody from the second violin in the second Fragment. The snippets of dialogue moved seamlessly from one musician to the next.
Australian Joe O’Connor’s composition “Vignettes”, written for the Penny Quartet with each of its short movements dedicated to a member of the Quartet, was a world premiere performance. Short phrases punctuated by pizzicato sounds moved the music forward. Each movement has a curious title related to the player to which it is dedicated, though the meandering third movement is aptly titled “Idle Talk”. The final movement is the most lyrical, with its broad melody beautifully shaped by the viola.
The quartet of Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, in three almost continuous movements, was the most substantial work on the program. The outstanding skills of the musicians shone in this very demanding music, requiring a large range of techniques and a sense of direction as rhythms and textures were thoroughly explored. Periods of almost static music in the first movement contrasted with great activity in the second, before a plaintive melody, again on the viola, brought in the final “Elegy”. The intense focus of the musicians maintained the precise rhythm and perfect balance throughout the performance.