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Adelaide Town Hall
August 12, 2017
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Masters Series in 2017 has thus far proved fiercely consistent, offering staples of the orchestral canon that, irrespective of conductor, continue to showcase the orchestra in impressive form. For Portraits and Variations, the sixth concert in the series, the ASO was led by English conductor Matthew Halls for a programme of Brahms, Ian Munro, Beethoven and Elgar, celebrating the fine art of variation.
Bookended by two monuments of the form, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a opened the concert. This was an auspicious start: the theme was taken at a proud and stately tempo, and there were plenty of colour gradations between each successive variation. The orchestra was warm and sumptuous throughout, but perhaps most impressive were the horns.
More notable was the work to follow. Ian Munro’s Flute Concerto, first performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in November 2016, must surely be one of the most interesting Australian compositions of the past decade. Based on eight Australian folk songs from a collection by John Meredith, the concerto is beguiling, charming and accessible, and wholeheartedly deserves a place among the flute’s core repertoire. In this performance, the ASO’s principal flute Geoffrey Collins appeared as soloist, performing the work with exemplary grace and sensitivity. His effulgent tone glided over an orchestra almost Ravelesque in its transparency. The work of a composer who clearly understands how well a flute blends with a harp, it was a special pleasure to hear Suzanne Handel in the exposed and often soloistic harp part. The dialogues between flute and percussion were also handled with admirable care; the strings providing an impressive atmospheric support.
Collins was terrific throughout, especially in some of the serpentine chromatic ascents of the second movement, Ten thousand miles. At moments when the flute was at the lower end of its register however, the orchestra was occasionally a little intrusive, and thus the solo line didn’t project with the kind of celestial clarity it does at the higher end of the spectrum. But there were many sublime moments throughout – particularly the ethereal violin solo by concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto. I can’t remember experiencing a new work being this rapturously received by an Adelaide audience, who responded with the kind of fervour and long-lasting applause that is usually reserved for the tried and true classics. Arts organisations planning their 2018/2019 seasons – take note!
An exciting and energetic performance of the Overture of Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 followed after the interval, but it served almost as a warm-up for the work to follow. What can be said about the Enigma Variations that hasn’t already been said? Elgar’s magnum opus occupies a place reserved only for the finest examples of the art, sitting comfortably alongside JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Despite its immense popularity, Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 never fails to yield new layers of pleasure upon repeated listening.
The iconic opening Enigma theme, taken at a suitably slow tempo, was breathed in pathos. The violins sumptuous, the horns and cellos dark and elegiac, the ASO were clearly in their element, producing their best playing of the night. Dispensing with extraneous arm gestures, conductor Matthew Halls coaxed a performance of commanding authority and heartfelt sincerity. There was fine playing throughout each capricious variation, particularly in the fourth (W.M.B.), but of course the heart of Enigma is the beloved ninth variation (Nimrod). Beginning almost impossibly soft and delicate in the strings, and gradually thickening into a gorgeous, resplendent mass of sound (greatly assisted by Peter Kelsall on organ), this was a genuinely moving and uplifting listening experience. I doubt there was anyone in the hall who didn’t have goosebumps.
The standard continued to impress until the end, and although the treacherous little flourishes in the violins were not always synchronised in the ensuing Intermezzo (Dorabella), Imants Larsens was simply sublime in the famous viola solo, as was Simon Cobcroft (cello) in B.G.N. (dedicated to Basil G. Nevinson, the cellist in Elgar’s trio). Likewise, Dean Newcomb was superb in the penultimate Romanza, producing an immaculately controlled and exquisitely soft clarinet solo that floated above the orchestra effortlessly (although there’s nothing effortless about it - this surely must be one of the most daunting and exposed clarinet solos). The Finale (Elgar’s portrait of himself) was no less compelling, and the cumulative experience was a portrait of the great composer that, despite so many other recordings and performances, was as poignant and uplifting as ever.