Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Canberra Symphony Orchestra Historic Highlights

by Tony Magee

LAMENTING the difficult times we have upon us, artistically, where there are no live concerts, albeit there have been some streamed ones, which is a great initiative, I am moved to reflect on previous CSO performances that I have reviewed over the last 25 years - in particular, several that stand out as special.

FIRSTLY, in re-reading my colleague Ian McLean’s review for City News of the outstanding concert by Canberra Symphony Orchestra last October, the last time they played in front of a live audience, I find I can add nothing further. We both heard the same things and a review by me would certainly reiterate Ian’s enthusiasm for the performance, and the fact that Canberra Symphony Orchestra excelled in one of their finest performances ever, particularly in delivering a world class interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, conducted by Nicholas Milton.

Vladimir Verbitsky. Photo: Jonathan Wentworth Associates L

THIS same symphony by Tchaikovsky was performed by the Canberra Symphony in March 1996, with the great Russian conductor Vladimir Verbitsky. It too was a superlative performance and Verbitsky achieved the same breathless moments of silence for contemplation as the dwindling moments of the fourth movement faded away - the audience spellbound before he released the tension with arms flopping down, signalling completion. My full review of that concert is here.

President Vladimir Putin decorated Verbitsky with the award of People's Artist of Russia. Verbitsky became an Australian citizen in June 2009.

Isaiah Jackson. Photo: Detroit Public Library

AMERICAN conductor Isaiah Jackson visited twice, Firstly in 1994 conducting the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 with Larry Sitsky as soloist, plus Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.  

A student of the great Leopold Stokowski, Jackson brought with him something that presented the orchestra with a new style of conducting and one which they were not used to: no baton! 

The apprentice had become the sorcerer and like his mentor, Jackson used sweeping hand gestures, moulding, shaping and extracting orchestral sounds and textures of extreme beauty and lushness, as well as a huge dynamic range. You can read my full review of that concert here.

Jackson returned in November 1996, this time conducting Beethoven’s third piano concerto with Kathryn Selby as soloist. Also on the program was the Symphony No. 8 by Antonin Dvorak. A thrilling performance of both works. My full review of that concert is here.

Jackson has also been a guest conductor with The New York Philharmonic in 1978, San Francisco Symphony in 1984, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1983 and 1985 and the Cleveland Orchestra from 1983 to 1992.

Jackson is lumped into the astonishingly titled chapter Blacks, Gays and Women, in Norman Lebrecht’s controversial book about conductors, “The Maestro Myth”.

GERMAN conductor Werner Andreas Albert visited in September 1995, conducting Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, with soloists Charmian Gadd and David Pereira. Also on the program was the Symphony No. 4 by Mendelssohn. 

This work in particular, portrayed the influence of the conductor - brisk tempos and confident playing with great conviction. The wind section made an outstanding contribution to this symphony with very tight ensemble playing, a large amount of very quiet but very fast tonguing and perfectly executed solos and duet passages. My full review here.

In 1995, Albert was named principal conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. He is also the permanent guest conductor of the Radio Symphony Orchestras in Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin and of the Bamberg Symphony. 

He holds the title of member of the German Federal Cross of Merit, Erste Klasse (the German equivalent of the British Order of Merit), as well as the Bavarian Order of Merit, which is limited to a restricted number of living members.

Nicholas Braithwaite. Photo: Otago Daily Times

NICHOLAS Braithwaite conducted the Hummel Trumpet Concerto, excellently played by soloist Daniel Mendelow, with Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in May 1996. I waxed lyrical about the Sibelius. My review is here.

On Sept 12, 1996, Braithwaite again took the baton for the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, plus Carl Vine’s Oboe Concerto with soloist David Nuttall. The orchestra played both works brilliantly and were nominated for a Canberra Critics Circle Award that year, for the Rachmaninov performance. You can read my full review of that concert here.

BRITISH conductor Stephen Barlow, accompanied by his wife comedian and actress Joanna Lumley, arrived in May 1997, conducting CSO in the Barber violin concerto, with Dean Olding as soloist, as well as Debussy’s "La Mer", which explores the ever changing moods of the sea.

Conductor Stephen Barlow and wife Joanna Lumley in 1986. Photo courtesy The Daily Mirror

Barlow's realisation of this great work was evocative, sensual and at times frightening, as he took both orchestra and audience on a wonderland journey through oceans deep and mysterious. Read my complete review of that concert here.

FINALLY, and much earlier - one from June 1987. I did not review this, but I was in it, singing in the tenor section of the choir. 

Heribert Beissel. Photo

Yes, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Guest conductor was Professor Heribert Beissel from Germany. Prior to this, CSO has been confidently conducted by Ernest Llewellyn and later Leonard Dommett. Suddenly this European Maestro had arrived and everyone was a bit nervous at the first rehearsal. Beissel was delighted with the orchestra, but the choir was a different story.

He became quite angry at one stage, because the choir could not define his downbeat. We were constantly coming in late on entries. 

After a break and a serious talk to us by head of voice, David Parker, we resumed for another run and this time Beissel seemed happy. Certainly this performance in 1987 was exhilarating and received with great enthusiasm by the audience.

Professor Beissel returned two years later in August 1989, conducting Haydn's Symphony in D Major and the Don Quixote Fantastic Variations Op. 35 by Richard Strauss, with soloists Vincent Edwards (viola) and Nelson Cook (cello).

A trip down memory lane from my CSO archives, which I hope you have enjoyed.