Monday, August 26, 2019

Pianist channels Chopin but orchestra disappoints

ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three
Ravel, Rachmaninov, Hindson and Mussorgsky
Canberra Symphony Orchestra
Llewellyn Hall, August 21

Reviewed by Tony Magee

Pianist Andrea Lam takes a bow with CSO after playing Rachmaninov
FOUR musicians shone brightly in a concert at Llewellyn Hall, presented by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Wednesday last.

Benn Sutcliffe played a superb saxophone solo and integrated himself in the wind section beautifully during the Mussorgsky/Ravel piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition”, which closed the concert.

Harpists Rowan Phemister and Jo Baee played lush and swirling glissandos of voluminous proportions during Ravel’s “La Valse”, which opened the concert.

Katherine Day on celeste was outstanding in her moving and beautifully respectful deliverance during Matthew Hindson’s wonderful piece, “The Stars Above Us All”, which opened the second half, as well as her contribution in the Mussorgsky.

In a brilliant piece of programming, conductor Nicholas Milton held the fading moments of the Hindson piece and then let silence speak for itself, allowing the audience to reflect on the themes that inspired it – the unstinting, unrelenting devotion of the parents of children undergoing treatment for long-term health issues. The orchestra then segued seamlessly into “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

“The Stars Above Us All” was the highlight of the evening for me. Every single musician in the orchestra seemed at one with the purpose and sensitivity of the piece. It was beautiful.

BUT the standard of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra as a whole has dropped considerably.

The woodwind section was frequently out of tune, the brass section variable in success. The second violins and violas were sometimes out of tune, often delivering a scraping, whining sound. The cello section was acceptable but with some tuning blemishes and missing their usual richness of tone and ensemble sonority. The double basses, first violins and percussion sections were all excellent.

Nicholas Milton is a superb conductor, but despite his best efforts, the orchestra failed to deliver the climaxes necessary to make the opening piece, Ravel’s “La Valse” blow the roof off the hall. The string section did, however, achieve some of the rich, sweeping lushness, almost of Mantovani proportions, that this piece needs and is famous for.

The “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Rachmaninov followed, with piano soloist Andrea Lam.

Ms Lam is a highly experienced pianist and has a sparkling and very accurate technique. This work, as with most Romantic concertos, needs a pianist of massive weight technique to deliver a sound of richness and intensity when required, but the power was not there.

Even so, it was a creditable performance. In particular she played the second movement with sensitivity, beauty and grace. The orchestra, once again, did not deliver on climaxes and still had some tuning blemishes. At the conclusion, a European man sitting next to me whispered “brak miesa”.

As an encore, Ms Lam played Chopin’s posthumously published C sharp minor Nocturne with superb delicacy and beauty. It was also a highlight of the evening. Her performance reflected the accounts of Chopin’s own playing, that being varying degrees of delicate pianissimo.

The only part of “Pictures at an Exhibition” that really worked well, was the final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev”, where the orchestra did start to hit their straps and deliver an earth-shattering climax and conclusion to the concert. 

LET me draw three comparisons with professional full-time American orchestras from cities much smaller than Canberra. These figures are from the 2018 US census.

St. Louis, population 302,838. The St. Louis Symphony boasts hundreds of acclaimed recordings on major labels Telarc, EMI and RCA and has attracted conductors of the calibre of Leonard Slatkin, whose tenure was from 1979 to 1996. Current music director is Stéphane Denève, formerly music director of the Brussels Philharmonic.

Cleveland, population 383,793. The Cleveland Orchestra is ranked as one of America’s “big five”, the others being New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. In 2012, Gramophone Magazine ranked the Cleveland Orchestra as number 7 on its list of the world’s greatest orchestras. It has released hundreds of superb recordings for CBS / Columbia (now Sony Music), over the last 60 years, being brought to international standard in the 1960s by George Szell, a tradition that continues under current music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Pittsburgh, population 301,048. Ranked within the next five within the United States and brought to the forefront of international concert playing by Fritz Reiner, André Previn and Lorin Maazel. It tours regularly throughout the US and internationally. The current musical director is Manfred Honeck.

Now let’s bring it a little closer to home. Hobart, Tasmania, population 206,097 from a state population of 531,529. The Tasmanian Symphony is ranked in with the standards of playing of the Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland, Adelaide and Western Australia Symphony Orchestras, which are all outstanding. TSO has toured to Israel, Greece, South Korea, Indonesia, Argentina, United States, Canada, China and Japan, as well as throughout Australia. Previous conductors include Barry Tuckwell, Nicholas Braithwaite, Dobbs Franks, Sebastian Lang-Lessing and currently Marko Letonja. Previous concertmasters have included Canberrans Wilfred Jones and Barbara Jane Gilby.

In a city of almost half a million people and one of the most affluent societies in Australia, Canberra currently has a professional orchestra which is not full-time and not up to scratch.

First published in an edited format in City News Digital Edition, August 22 and also on Tony's blog, Art Music Theatre, August 26.