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What an orchestra!

A bewitching composition by Elena Katz-Chernin

A bewitching composition by Elena Katz-Chernin

Reflecting the unique nature of the Australian World Orchestra (AWO), its fifth birthday concert on 28  September  in the Sydney Opera House could be reviewed from two different perspectives. Both are worthy of resounding praise.But first, a summary of what this orchestra is all about. It began with an idea developed by two Australian musicians, oboist Nick Deutsch and conductor Alexander Briger. They wanted to assemble Australian musicians who had won places in the finest orchestras around the world and put them together with the best players in Australian state orchestras to play occasional concerts in Australia – although its popularity has now created opportunities to play overseas. The first concert was in 2011and was so successful that it has created continuing sell-out demand, partly because it is one of the best orchestras in the world and partly because it plays so rarely. Moreover, each time it is heard it comprises a different set of players – giving it a mystical quality.

The orchestra booked the Sydney Opera House for two consecutive nights with a different conductor and program for each. Last night, under Alexander Briger, the AWO played Ravel’s Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 and a work commissioned for the concert, The Witching Hour – a concerto for eight double basses and orchestra by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin.

First, let’s look at this as a purely classical concert. Because the players are all top rated orchestral musicians (as distinct from soloists) they naturally form a perfect combination. The sound makes you feel as though you’ve just had the wax cleared from your ears. It is needle sharp in attack, grand in its ability to produce massive volume without harshness, and a clarity within instrumental sections that is hard to believe.

Initially, I questioned the wisdom of opening the concert with the hackneyed Ravel’s Bolero, but the performance totally won me over. Maestro Briger walked to the podium, the music began, but he didn’t conduct it. Rather he stood listening to the familiar, faint dialogue between kettle drum (placed in the geographical centre of the orchestra) and flute. It wasn’t until well past the halfway mark that he released his folded hands to direct his players. Bolero served a dual purpose. It methodically introduced these outstanding instrumentalists in ensemble groups or as soloists and, to me, was a metaphor for the birth and growth of the AWO project. I doubt Briger consciously intended it that way, but I’ll take credit for this interpretation.

Bolero was followed by a work commissioned for the concert, The Witching Hour – a concerto for eight double basses and orchestra by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. This was not only an Australian premier, but a first-time experience for musicians and audience alike. The eight double bass players migrated from the back of the orchestra to the front of the stage, placing the conductor behind them – which presented a challenge because they couldn’t see him. I guessed that Kats-Chernin had taken this into account with her four movement score, because there seemed to be no call for a coordinated hit from soloists and orchestra.

The work makes for accessible listening but still manages to create a unique sound palate. The eight double bases sometimes played in unison and sometimes in parts. The effect was almost physical as the giant notes vibrated audience backbones and sternums. This was music that was easy to love at first hearing, switching between percussion jousts, the distant tinkling of the celeste, rhythmic storms, floods of strings and the occasional descent into spooky darkness.

Alexander Briger told me that after its Australian premier, quite a number of prominent conductors, Sir Simon Rattle among them, want the score for a performance. I rate this piece an outstanding addition to Australian composition.

The final work was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 in E Minor, which gave the AWO an opportunity to show just what it could do with the variety of colours on offer. Like Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s fifth is a veteran of orchestral concerts, but played by the AWO (and let’s not discount Briger’s masterful conducting) it sounded almost like a new piece.

The other perspective I mentioned earlier is to review the night as entertainment. In addition to the three ‘serious’ pieces, the program included two short works played by a combination of some AWO members and talented musical kids from around NSW. Then, to add to the festive feel of the concert, certain audience members sitting in the boxes had been given streamers and throwing lessons so the musicians might feel like they were aboard a departing ship. And, unusually, the orchestra played an encore: Star Wars no less. Fun, yes, but being a grumpy old bugger I could have done without it. I got my best laugh towards the end of the Tchaikovsky when Briger paused the orchestra in a rest and some chump in the circle started clapping.


A little too gentle?

Like to have a cup of tea and a scone with Nelson.

Like to have a cup of tea and a scone with Nelson.

After his sensitive and powerful rendition of the Schumann piano concerto with the SSO last week I was looking forward to a sparkling solo recital form Nelson Freire last night – but I didn’t get it.

Freire has been, and probably still is, in the top drawer of international pianists – certainly by reputation, anyway. And, if you like the piano to sound as though somebody has sprayed foam inside it, this was the recital for you. Although 72 year old Freire still possesses a formidable technique and is a master of phrasing, he keeps the sound bottled up for most of the time. Many of my audience colleagues to whom I spoke didn’t agree with me and I’ll take that one on the chin. I was looking for excitement rather than gentle contemplation and maybe they weren’t.

On the indisputable plus side was the choice of program. It covered Bach piano transcriptions, a Beethoven sonata, a Debussy suite and a Chopin sonata. In other words, something for everybody, thank you Nelson.

We began with Siloti’s take on Bach’s Organ Prelude, BWV 535 – a great recital opener because it allows a warmup with unhurried, predictable chords before suddenly exploding into two handed runs and forte wallops. Another prolific Bach transcriber, Busoni, provided piano versions of two choral preludes, BWV 639 and 667. They seemed to want more vivid treatment from Freire even though the wheels wobbled fearsomely towards the end of 667.

Myra Hess’s crowd-pleaser arrangement of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring rounded out the transcriptions. Freire’s reverential quiet was well placed here.

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A flat, Op 110 got the Chopinesque nocturnal treatment from Freire when I was itching for a bit of blood and thunder. The only passages that approached forte were near the end of the final movement.

This gentler take on Beethoven may have made for pleasant enough listening, but didn’t demand my attention.

If Freire’s Beethoven was contemplative, it was no surprise that Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite danced about on spongy grass. These pieces were composed for Debussy’s daughter, ‘Chouchou’, and are utterly charming. Freire played them in that context, but his interpretation would have had a bigger impact if they had been preceded by lustier playing.

The jewel in the crown was undoubtedly the Chopin Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op.58. Chopin had reverted to the four movement sonata form at this stage in his composing career, but he broke new ground within that framework. This is Chopin at his most dramatic and also his most lyrical. Although you couldn’t accuse Freire of hitting wrong notes or not being able to attack a passage like an express train, his right and left hand often seemed to be in disagreement as to where they were in the score. Having said that, I loved his third movement, largo. When the melody shifted to the left hand, supported by a repetitive major sixth figure in the right, it became a heart melter – perfectly suiting his performance style. In the final presto non tanto movement Freire let the lion out of its cage with a brilliant technical and interpretive display and I wish he’d opened the door earlier in the recital.

Apart from his playing, Nelson Freire extracts great affection from his audience. Modesty comes across in the way he walks, sits unmoving at that keyboard (like Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz used to) and shyly bows to applause. On this occasion he was generous with encores which included a deliciously played Chopin Mazurka and Grieg’s “Wedding day at Troldhaugen” – more of a shotgun wedding actually, judging by its furious speed.




Boys from Brazil

Marcelo Lehninger let his hair down with Rachmaninov's second symphony.

Marcelo Lehninger let his hair down with Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

Not athletes or para-athletes in Rio this time, but a Brazilian conductor and a pianist who, with considerable help from the SSO, produced an outstanding concert in the APT Master Series last night. The conductor was Marcelo Lehninger who, at 37, is in baton world ascendancy while 72-year-old pianist, Nelson Freire, showed that age is irrelevant when it comes to technique and musicality. The program began, appropriately, with an overture. Beethoven wrote several as concert pieces not related to specific theatrical works. This time we were treated to Coriolan, Op.62 which, after arresting unadorned C octaves and big replying chords, gives way to a pleasant theme with a few detours into dramatic recapitulations. The conclusion is so hushed that it had those not familiar with the piece wondering why Lehninger had stopped waving his arms.

The furniture removalists then got work positioning the Steinway in centre stage and redistributing the orchestral chairs for the arrival of Nelson Freire to join the SSO in Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54. Although this piano concerto ranks among the best of the genre, it is not as popular as it once was, lacking the growl and howl of those by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Grieg, Saint-Saens and Tchaikovsky, all crowd favourites in the current heroic age.If you want liaisons with the orchestra and unobvious technical demands, this is the perfect piano concerto.

The first movement sat around unloved for years as a Phantasie for Piano and Orchestra before Schumann added a second and third movement, thus enabling his famous pianist wife, Clara, to show it off in her repertoire.

The first dramatic statements from the piano immediately established Freire as both a powerful and sensitive interpreter of this concerto. For the most part, he played with bell-like clarity, taking a great deal of trouble to merge with the orchestra and hit bullseyes together. Only very occasionally was a flicker of muddiness discernible, such as in the two descending runs in the first movement cadenza. Perhaps because I was brought up on the peerless Lipatti recording of the Schumann I’ve become too fussy. Anyway I’m looking forward to hearing Nelson Freire in his solo recital next Monday where he’ll range over several composers.

The removal of the piano and another shuffle of chairs brought the orchestra back, this time with substantial reinforcements (bull fiddle count: eight) to perform Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27. Hard to believe, but Rachmaninov had great doubts about this second symphony, especially after the hostile reception to his first. Vladimir Ashkenazy once told me: ‘Rachmaninov was not a confident composer’ yet to hear the second symphony you’d think just the opposite. It lasts for just on an hour without ever dragging or allowing you to nod off, or even relax. Most of the orchestra is busy for most of the time and pulls you along with it. The sweeping passion, the rich sadness and the occasional driving rhythms make this a great showpiece for a good orchestra, and the SSO responded brilliantly. Yes, the players were up to it, but I had the feeling that the conductor, Marcelo Lehninger, had a lot to do with the excellence of the performance. He’s an animated mover on the podium; not a leaper like some, but an upper body flinger. During quieter passages he’d lean on his podium rail or use his hands instead of his baton. I didn’t take this as affectation but as an overwhelming enthusiasm for the music. It certainly gave the appearance of having the orchestra totally with him.

The symphony comes in four distinct movements but fragments of earlier themes return to enhance cohesion. The fourth and final movement is spectacular, finishing with a heart-bursting roar after building, falling away and building again in Wagnerian style. And you can’t help being reminded of Tchaikovsky, except that the orchestration is better.  But for sheer beauty, to the point of tears, you’d go no further than the third adagio movement which, to quote the program notes by Philip Sametz, ‘is perhaps the greatest love duet never written for the stage.’ Here, the honeyed clarinet of Francesco Celata wove pure magic.





The unexpected – and it all worked

Vadim Gluzman found a new use for his epaulette.

Vadim Gluzman found a new use for his epaulette.

SSO Opera House concert 29 June 2016

Staying in familiar territory, but with more ear-challenges than the last APT Master Series concert, the SSO loaded up its heavy artillery for a resoundingly satisfying performance last night.
Although orchestral concerts do not follow operatic dictates, it is always pleasing to begin with an overture to settle the head. There are plenty to choose from, but you’d think drawing from the output of Dmitri Shostakovich would bring forth something atonal. Not so. His Festive Overture Op 96 may well have come from the previous century, beginning as it does with a ripping fanfare from the brass, followed by jaunty orchestral writing that invites cinegraphic scenery, unbidden, into the imagination.
Dmitri apparently tossed the overture off one afternoon in 1954 when the Bolshoi Theatre found that nobody had remembered to organise a striking opener for its 37th anniversary concert of the October Revolution.The story goes that as the composer finished each page of the overture a courier grabbed it and rushed it off to the waiting publisher. With such haste required, Shostakovich probably didn’t have time to get too inventive with it, although the same tonal simplicity can be found in the delicious slow movement of his second piano concerto.
The SSO weighed into the overture with power-packed enthusiasm while providing a warm-up for Korean conductor, Shiyeon Sung. One of a tiny number of women conductors on the international circuit, Sung took charge of the orchestra with precise direction and plenty of passion. By the time the concert was over I had ranked her one of the most effective guest conductors we’ve seen in a long time. Her skill was underlined by the orchestra’s reaction at the end of the night when she motioned for them to rise to receive applause but they remained seated to applaud her instead.
The overture done, it was time for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Russian born soloist, Vadim Gluzman. Although the Tchaikovsky is now one of the most popular violin concertos it had a difficult birth. Assisted in its creation by Tchaikovsky’s virtuoso violinist lover, Joseph Kotek, the two split up when Kotek refused to premier it. It was considered, at the time, just too difficult to play. With such a reputation, the concerto languished unperformed for three years until another virtuoso violinist, Adolph Brodsky, took up the cudgels and played it at a Vienna Philharmonic concert in 1881. Even then it got a bagging from the critics. But slowly, as more soloists took their brave pills and performed it, the concerto rose through the popularity ranks to where it is today.
That said, it still takes a mighty fiddler to conquer its technical difficulties, which is where Gluzman entered the fray at the Sydney Opera House – and nailed it.
More than simply playing notes, Gluzman won hearts with sensitive phrasing and a willingness to turn down the volume wick where a lesser performer might fear not being heard. Tall and imposing, Gluzman’s performance was enhanced by his stage presence and body movements as he totally immersed himself in the music. This was an exciting performance with a breathtaking first movement cadenza along with death-defying speed and accuracy in the third.
A huge orchestra then assembled for the sprawling, five movements of the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. The Opera House stage was crammed with players and instruments for one of the most important musical creations of the 19th Century. In addition to a full compliment of strings, there were two harps, two sets of timpani, church bells, four bassoons, four horns, three trombones and two tubas (known officially as ophicleides) one of which was played by a woman – which is unusual.
This massive collection of instruments made a monumental sound when they played together. The percussion alone was capable of starting an avalanche, to say nothing of the raw power of the brass and string basses or the screeching of the E flat clarinet.
The Symphony’s five movements are built around the story of (to use the composer’s program notes) “a young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with a vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of love-sick despair.” The dose doesn’t kill him but puts him into a stupor in which he has extraordinary visions. While Berlioz didn’t claim to be the young musician in question, he could relate to the passions of unrequited love from bitter personal experience.
Not only did Berlioz write 50 minutes of kaleidoscopic music, but he also supplied a program guide to be given to all future audiences so that they’d understand the story behind the music. The SSO concert program contained the guide – if somewhat tongue in cheek.
I was prepared for an enjoyable SSO concert but got far more than I expected. There were many surprises, all of them good.

An afternoon with Noah

SSO Opera House concert 22 May 2016

p1020978It doesn’t take much imagination to look over the aging sea of regular Sydney Opera House orchestral audiences to know that in 20 years from now the tide could have gone out – never to come back in.That’s why any attempt to encourage children’s interest in classical music in general and the Sydney Symphony in particular are to be applauded. I took my eleven-year-old grandson to a concert last Sunday called The Composer is Dead, in which actor/comedian Frank Woodley took on the dual roles of narrator and inspector in a musical whodunit. The orchestra played music written and arranged by American composer Nathaniel Stookey with words by Lemony Snicket.

Woodley was a convincing and hilarious inspector as he searched among the various orchestral groups looking for the villain, exposing the individual instrumental sounds as he did so. Regular assistant conductor of the SSO, the youthful Toby Thatcher, conducted the performance and entered into the banter as the search progressed. Tchaikovsky’s Eighteen Twelve Overture was used in the score, with the handclaps of the audience taking the usual role of the cannons.

In the end, the conductor was found to have murdered the composer, evidenced by the number of dead composers that have gone through his hands. But there was redemption too, when it was acknowledged that conductors and orchestras brought them constantly, if fleetingly, back to life by performing their works.

In addition to the hour long show in the concert hall, members of the orchestra were stationed in the northern foyer of the Opera House to demonstrate various instruments. The horn player showed one of his prize possessions, an old trumpet which he’d purchased on EBay for five dollars. I think that impressed my grandson even more than the sound it could make.

The concert drew a well-supported house, with plenty of kids, many of whom, like my grandson, had never previously heard a top class symphony orchestra play. One performance won’t turn them all into future concertgoers of course, but at least the grain of sand is now in the oyster.

The Lang Lang phenomenon


Lang Lang in the zone.

SSO Opera House concert 10 June 2016

After testing recent audiences’ resilience with the lunges and shocks of Messiaen, and then their staying power to see off Haydn’s Creation, last night’s concert opened a chocolate box full of favourite flavours.

Billed as ‘Lang Lang plays Grieg’ – a special event sponsored by Premier Credit Suisse – there was no doubt that this was a classical pop concert lacking only screaming teenagers and flying knickers.

In a concession rarely made to concerto soloists, Lang Lang’s Grieg occupied the second half of the program, meaning that people went home humming Norwegian tunes, rather than something more symphonic, as they recalled the showmanship of the world’s most successful (and quite possibly richest) classical pianist. Rather than audience numbers diminishing after interval, as is often the case, they grew, as many Chinese patrons and their children came only to hear their countryman play.

The more highbrow among us might scoff at a concert of schmaltz, but for all my love of profound classical music I’m not afraid to declare a liking for the occasional bath in syrup.

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 pops up in all kinds of places such as movies and advertising, which meant that I was sitting back with a ho-hum attitude when the concert commenced. That was demolished immediately Venezuelan conductor, Manuel Lopez-Gomez, raised his baton and the orchestra responded with a sound that magically combined fullness with restraint. Although Grieg calls for a big orchestra (bull- fiddle count: eight) it moved forward as one instrument. The strings in Death of Ase were mesmerising. Were it not for the looming presence of Lang Lang, this tall young conductor with the remarkable eyebrows would have stolen the show. I hope the SSO brings Lopez-Gomez back in the future.

He also wrought wonders with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini – symphonic fantasia after Dante. With a symphonic layout similar to Pyotr’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, it bookends lovers’ tender embraces with walloping trouble. In Francesca’s case we are served up aspects of Hell. Again, this is in the popular repertoire, but the SSO under Lopez-Gomez gave it clarity, life and excitement that belied its familiarity.

And so to the third layer in the chocolate box: Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Like its companion, the Tchaikovsky first, every pianist worth his or her salt – and quite a few who are not – have played and recorded it. Freed of surprises in the music, the listener can therefore concentrate on the interpretation.

Still looking like a teenager, the 34 year old Chinese superstar arrives on stage to deafening applause, forcing him to go through a 360 degree bowing routine before sitting down at the Steinway and flexing his long fingers. After quiet settles, the rising anticipation is suddenly broken by the tympani, then the first massive A minor chord from the piano releases a cascade down the keyboard; Lang Lang is bolting away.

I’ve never witnessed a Grieg like this one. Lang Lang took outrageous liberties with tempi and melody notes, sometimes creating the illusion that this was not the Grieg I knew. He would pause at the end of a phrase, hands raised above the keyboard and fingers flexing while I wondered if he’d stopped for a cuppa. Then he’d attack a passage, like the one near the end of the third movement, with explosive virtuosity that beggared belief. At other times he would be sleeping-kitten gentle, as he’d pick off the last note of a limpid run and point the serving finger in the air.

Yes, Lang Lang is full of affectations you can interpret in many ways. He might indeed be on another plane, lost in a musical trance, or he might be taking the mickey out of the believers. But whatever the motivation, this is what delights audiences, especially those who are not musical purists. They want flinging arms, keyboard assaults and facial expressions of whimsy and ecstasy. This is how they expect a concert pianist to behave and Lang Lang gives it to them in spades. Liberace used to do something similar; admittedly to a lower-brow audience, but in Lang Lang’s case you can never deny that here is one astonishingly good classical pianist by any standard.