Concert Review: Flute, Cello and Piano Trio Recital at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens

Another sunny day, another lunchtime concert at a beautiful church hiding amidst the lush greenery of central London: St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens. Under the resonant arches of the church, I listened to a very entertaining programme curated by flautist (and my friend) Karen Wong.

Sussex Gardens, from my cycle to the church

The brief programme–lasting no more than 45 minutes–consisted of three pieces: Philippe Gaubert’s 3 Aquarelles (Three Watercolours); J S Bach’s Partita in A minor for solo flute; Johann Hummel’s Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano. Janice Tsui played piano while Yishang Sheng played the cello. It was a very well-balanced programme, with two light piano trios (one colourful and the other virtuosic) flanking the more substantial and demanding Partita for solo flute.

Gaubert’s 3 Aquarelles was lovely to listen to for the first time; it wasn’t hard to follow. The structure of the three pieces are fairly simple. There were some lovely harmonies and chord changes that really demonstrated the colourful palette of the music, and the trio fully showed that as they immersed themselves in the performance. They really came into their stride in the second movement, when there was much more interaction between the instruments as the melody was passed around. The music really explored the unique timbre of each instrument, especially the use of flute instead of violin in a piano trio.

The lovely venue, waiting to be filled with music

Karen did a wonderful job leading the group, even in the face of a fearsome adversary–the fly that has inadvertently wandered into the church. Let’s face it, the fly is an opponent that every musician must stoically face in summer concerts. With great weather comes great buzzing noises.

My personal favourite was the third of the Aquarelles, the Sérénade.

However, for me, the highlight of the concert was the Bach partita for solo flute. The first movement–the Allemande–is daunting enough, but Karen took on the formidable challenge of playing the complete partita, and came out triumphantly. It is super interesting to see how a monophonic instrument like the flute tackles Bach’s polyphonic music. Being able to play the flute to an amateur level, I can tell you it is extremely difficult, but Karen made it seem effortless, juggling two (or even three) melodic lines simultaneously, switching between different dynamics without even taking a breath.

Karen performing Bach’s partita for solo flute

While playing polyphonic music effortlessly, Karen nevertheless maintained a keen ear ready to adjust to the acoustics of the church in order to attain the expressiveness she desired. I must say, the resonance did help with creating a beautiful, ringing sound advantageous for solo flute music, but at the same time, one must handle the holding of a note with care in such a resonant environment, in case the sound drops. Karen made sure each finishing note was held in perfect harmony with the environment around her. The final movement of the Partita, the bourée, was so alive and filled with beautiful energy. It was a little bit of a shame she didn’t do the repeats though.

The concert ended in a flourish of virtuosic bravado with Hummel’s trio. Unlike the Gaubert, which treated the sound of the flute with care, Hummel wrote his trio where violin and flute are interchangeable, so one does not really get the sense that the flute’s abilities is thoroughly explored in the composition. However, the emphasis is on the virtuosity and not really the colour of the instruments, and it was really entertaining to see the three instrumentalists soaring through the cluster of notes joyfully. The music never felt bogged down; technical challenges never felt like a concern. Kudos to Janice for nailing a difficult piano part!

I had a great time listening to Karen and her friends perform today. Karen curated a wonderful and entertaining programme introducing new music as well as showing why classics deserve their positions in the canon. I look forward to hearing more of her performances in the future!

Karen will be performing again at St Olaves Church at Hart Street with pianist Ng Mo Suet on 16th June, this time presenting a diverse programme of music for flute and piano. Be sure to check them out!

The trio after the concert, smiles all round


4 stars out of 5

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