A ballet overture to start this concert was a good programming choice, for it set the scene for an evening in which a fleet-footed Canberra Symphony Orchestra skipped and pirouetted its way through some very engaging and entertaining music.

Jessica Cottis. Photo © Timothy Jeffes/Sydney Symphony Orchestra

The dissonant, brooding entry to Beethoven’s overture to his one-and-only ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus, belies the heroic energy of the rest of the piece. Guest conductor, Jessica Cottis, effused that energy in abundance. There was no mistaking her definition and positive direction, eliciting a tight-as-a-drum orchestral sound. Entries were solid, with tone, balance and expression beautifully responsive to Cottis’ fluid style, only stiffening up when it comes to the punchy bits.

Overall, the sound was not so much “muscular”, as one might normally expect in, for example, Beethoven’s Eroica. Here it was lighter, more refined and tippy-toed, as one might expect in a ballet.

Prometheus was a good lead-in to Nigel Westlake’s oboe concerto, Spirit of the Wild, written for, and performed here by Diana Doherty, Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Oboe and CSO Artist in Focus for 2019. Westlake wrote the work after going on an adventure, with former Greens pollie, Bob Brown, to Bathurst Harbour in the world heritage wilderness area in Tasmania’s south-west.

Like Prometheus, Spirit mostly dances along apace, with Doherty’s oboe scrambling up and down its entire range in bird-like calls or scurrying like some scrub animal, flitting here and there in hunt of food, or perhaps itself escaping being some other predator’s lunch.  Doherty embellished proceedings with many impressive cadenzas, even at one point vocalising through her instrument to create squeals, perhaps of a creature cornered.

The third section, marked Tranquillo – Liberamente, almost came as a relief, giving time to enjoy the pristine surroundings, with long notes and sustained phrases, only to give way to more scrambling in the last, reminiscent of a frenetic tarantella, “building”, as the composer says, “… to a traditional ‘big finish’.”

Spirit is a piece only for a virtuoso to play, and Doherty fitted the bill consummately, creating vivid mind pictures and performing entirely from memory. The clarity she achieved in the scrambling bits, the warmth she elicited in the Tranquillo, and the expression she created throughout showed just what a treasure she is to Australian music-making. Cottis and the CSO, augmented by a large percussion section of both tuned and untuned instruments, gave brilliant, empathic, understated support in this superb performance.

Diana Doherty. Photo © Christie Brewster

Then followed another home-grown piece, Ecstatic Dance, by Ross Edwards. Still on the dance theme, this piece moves along with frequently changing rhythm patterns, but always with an underlying constant forward motion. Its driving rhythm and continuous, repetitive melody line seems never to end. Cottis and the CSO remained faithful to both all the way through, taking their listeners to any place that comes to their minds, whether it be some exotic far-east village dance or an Aboriginal corroboree.

Concluding this excellent concert was Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, Scottish. In his all-too-brief life of just 38 years, he was a prolific composer who travelled quite a lot. He visited the UK several times and fell in love with Scotland, particularly its landscapes.

The inspiration for the Scottish came on his first visit to Scotland, in 1829, and he sketched a few bars while visiting the ruins of Holyrood Palace, in Edinburgh. But life got in the way of progressing the work and he didn’t complete it until 1842, while he was in Italy.

Typical of Mendelssohn’s writing, the Scottish is packed with expressive imagery of the Scottish countryside. Certainly the wind and the sea in the first movement evokes a wind-swept coastline, with Scottish folk dance styles emerging in the second movement, written in scherzo style. And those fabulous horn fanfares in the final movement are full of joy and anticipation.

The CSO relished this piece, its expressive, colourful performance creating mind’s-eye scenes of landscape grandeur, lively village fairs, and serene beauty. Cottis had proceedings under tight control and superb balance but allowing the orchestra plenty of freedom to dance. And dance it did, with energy, panache and style.

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