Monday, June 20, 2022

Apcar's Holland

Ronan Apcar, piano

Rowan Phemister, harp

Canberra Sinfonia Strings conducted by Leonard Weiss

Wesley Uniting Church, June 19 2022

Reviewed by Tony Magee

IN THIS superb program of music showcasing modern composers, pianist Ronan Apcar displayed his considerable talents at the piano along with beautiful performances by Rowan Phemister on harp and the Canberra Sinfonia Strings conducted by Leonard Weiss.

Pianist Ronan Apcar. Photo: Rowan Davie

Apcar plays with a relaxed, fluid technique, achieving forte passages and motifs with ease and without bashing, extracting singing qualities from the piano and lyrical flowing lines with style and grace.

Leonard Weiss has matured enormously as a conductor, his command of the score for all pieces being definitive and secure. He held the orchestra in tight command and established himself as a conductor whose style and musical perceptions are admirable.

The string section of Canberra Sinfonia played beautifully and confidently throughout the concert, with good intonation and dynamic shadings.

“The Light that Breaks” by Chinese-American composer Bobby Ge is in three movements, played without break and creates a superb soundscape of light imagery. 

The concerto was technically demanding in places, something that Apcar at the piano pulled off with aplomb. Dramatic phrases and passages were played with conviction and purpose, contrasted with delicate dream-like sequences. 

In a world premiere performance, Christopher Gordon’s “June Again” is adapted from his score for the film of the same name. The central character, June, receives temporary lucidity from dementia and spends treasured quality time on an adventure with her family. 

The happiness and joy evoked in this music poured forth from the musicians, the harp and piano integrating beautifully with the strings into a lush orchestral blend. 

The “Catharsis” movement revealed shimmering silky sounds from the strings and harp, complemented by a beautiful violin solo from Brad Tham who also seems a born orchestra leader, his playing and leadership being confident, capped off with beautiful tone production.

Filled with tuneful and playful melodies, this beautiful and uplifting soundscape must ad enormously to the premise of the movie.

Harpist Rowan Phemister. Photo: Peter Hislop

From the research Apcar and Weiss have done, the performance of “Concertino for Piano and Strings” by Dulcie Holland AM (1913 - 2000) was possibly also a world premiere. With gentle hints from the compositional style of Ralph Vaughan Williams evident at times, the piece was very engaging and substantial in form and content. 

Holland became well-known for writing theory books and technical exercises for the piano and was also an examiner for the AMEB. Having studied composition with both Alfred Hill and John Ireland, her output as a composer is substantial in both quantity and quality, although somewhat neglected.

The first movement was animated and evocative, with stirring musical motifs and phrases. The gentle slow movement introduced by a mournful and beautifully played solo cello introduction, was expressive and moving. Closing with a lighthearted romp, Apcar at the piano played brilliantly with bravado and style.

Ronan Apcar, piano, with Canberra Sinfonia and conductor Leonard Weiss. Photo: Peter Hislop

Holland’s work struck me as a masterpiece of the concerto repertoire and deserves to be performed again and again. With Canberra Sinfonia having created the first typeset edition of the score and parts, it now can be. 

Hopefully this piano concerto can gain the respect and honour it deserves, to find a rightful place in regular orchestral programming in Australia and around the world.