At Omega’s CoLAB showcase, you’re not watching the fledgling steps of early career composers into the space of contemporary classical music. You’re watching young, proficient musicians given rare space to spread wings and pour formidable talent into writing for some of Australia’s most accomplished modern performers.

In the ensemble’s 2023 performance in the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room, titled New Now, there was no lack in quality that the word ‘emerging’ sometimes implies. 

Naomi Dodd, Ben Robinson, Andrew Howes and Natalie Nicolas. Photo © Jay Patel

For those doing the ’emerging’, the opportunity is incredible: to write a 15-minute work for one of the country’s largest chamber ensembles, under the mentorship of modern music legends such as Carl Vine, Elena Kats-Chernin, Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli and Christopher Cerrone.

This year’s participants were Andrew Howes, Naomi Dodd, Natalie Nicolas and Ben Robinson. Each had a deft handle on the ensemble they were given to command, and each took a very different approach for their 15 minutes, which made for an engaging program.

The evening began with Andrew Howes’ Star Invocations, which draws on conversations with four Gamilaroi/Gomeroi women. “To these women,” Howes’ program notes read, “every bird, rock and star is an active part of the ongoing story of creation. I have tried to honour that idea.”

In a markedly modern work, eschewing standard tonality, Howes embeds starlight with a delicate hand. You could hear it in this work from its outset, with shimmering melodies from violinist Peter Clark passed across each instrument. It worked gorgeously in one striking middle section in particular, when long notes across the whole ensemble were interrupted with sharp melodic scribbles from each instrument.

Next was Dodd, the current MSO Cybec Composer in Residence. A three-movement work, Growing Up is a sweet musing on the joy and innocence of childhood that gave rise to a heavy sadness about “something we cannot fully revisit. Not in the same way.”

It is a cohesive work that turned the evening back to the tonal. Strings and clarinet sitting steady in their middle registers kept the work grounded, with honeyed vibrato on viola and violin. Beautiful pianistic flares from Vatche Jambazian built a great bed for misty reminiscence.

Nicolas penned a lively, rhythmically rich work in Sydney Dreaming. A recent PhD graduate, she centres her approach on the use of compositional tools to evoke specific feelings from an audience. Here, rhythm is her primary instrument, while her writing is kept “more lyrical” to mark the occasion of a dream realised – having a work performed at the Sydney Opera House.

Underpinned by a steady pulse, Omega skipped through complex timing and cross-rhythm, and banded together for exciting, rapid runs in a swirling piece whose brightness never muddied. A middle section that drew the ensemble together in rhythm made for a stunning centrepiece; Omega’s highly-polished performances added a final sheen to already fully-fledged works.

Naomi Dodd, Natalie Nicolas, Ben Robinson and Andrew Howes.

Robinson composes with fun and fury. His work, Have a Nice Trip, was a spectacular crown to the evening. Sorting through one of “the most intense internal conflicts” in music, the piece begins on mischievous terms, though heartfelt sincerity always bubbles to the surface.

The performers trade around a short, thorny motif as they weave through dissonance and intriguing string techniques. At one point, Neil Thompson wielded his viola like a guitar and bit off broken bow hairs, casualties to the gusto of the music. It seamlessly veered into a hugely tense, stabbing climax, before winding down on a lovely, grave note.

Before the final work, General Manager David Boyce made an exciting announcement to the crowd: from next year, the CoLAB program will be brought to Melbourne. With over 150 applications for its NSW-based program alone in 2023, and with the varied compositional talent showcased here, it’s thrilling to think what Omega’s expansion of the program sows in the soil for the future of Australian art music.

More information about Omega Ensemble’s CoLAB program can be found here. Applications for the 2024 program will open later this year.

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