Adelaide Town Hall
June 1, 2018
Grace & Grandeur marked Grace Clifford’s much-anticipated return to an Adelaide stage, which she has not graced since her 2016 Sibelius Concerto – when, at the age of 18, she astonished the Limelight reviewer with her “refined, precise musicianship” and a “depth of musical maturity way beyond her years”. Things have only improved from there. Now studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and welcomed back to Adelaide as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural Emerging Artist in Association, Clifford last night gave further proof of that skill and insight which has singled her out as one of Australia’s finest young violinists.
Grace Clifford. Photograph © Anthony Browell
Clifford has said that the Mendelssohn Concerto was one of the first violin concertos she ever learnt. With such a well-loved and well-known work, it’s a real challenge to play in a way which bypasses the establishments and the assumptions, and reveals to the audience the freshness and vitality which is still at the heart of this music. For me, Clifford rose to this challenge with dauntless grace.
The secret was in her sound – from the opening, that famous upsurge of the first theme, there was a silkiness to Clifford’s every note. Even extroverted double-stop passages were somehow gilded with lyricism, made shining by this smooth, polished sound. Though there was a strength to this tone, there was no darkness; this Mendelssohn was an accomplishment of brightness and colour, not of light and shadow.
The musicians of the ASO balanced with all this wonderfully, not overtaking even the soloist’s softest tones. The integration between orchestra and soloist was excellent and at times outstanding – at the beginning of the third movement, when a brass fanfare alternates with the flourishes of the violin, the effect was like nothing so much as quickfire ripostes in a witty conversation.
Clifford’s sense of timing too was captivating, with fearless silences in the cadenza. In her solo passages, you could have heard a pin drop in that crowded hall; the audience hung breathless upon every note. Thunderous applause brought her out for an encore in which this was all the more evident – the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin. Without an orchestra behind her, every detail of the sound could be heard and cherished, and Clifford took delicious, lingering time over her phrasing, using silence like breath. It was a transcendent way to conclude the first half of the concert.
A little mental reset was required before undertaking to hear the second half – Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, an interesting choice to pair with such a concerto. It worked though, which was perhaps something to do with the bright warmth of Clifford’s Mendelssohn against the amber-hued resonance of the symphony, with its notable quantities of brass. In other respects, the symphony is an adventure of almost epic proportions, a dizzying array of moods and themes, studded thickly with sudden shifts in tone and dynamics.
The ASO and their Principal Guest Conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, threw themselves heart and soul into this marathon of a work, with such convincing and captivating effect that the hour-long symphony seemed to sweep past in a matter of minutes. Wigglesworth kept a judicious but subtle hand on the reins, saving the orchestra’s reserve through long, slow crescendos until just the right moment (such as when the cymbal clashes!). Throughout a host of character changes, which sometimes felt as sudden as dropping off a cliff, he was in superb control and the orchestra stayed with him all the way. It is of course inevitable that some entries should be less pristine than others, but the occasional slight irregularity kept the music graspable, kept it human.
Brass and woodwind sections feature heavily throughout the work, and these musicians deserve some special mention. There were some expertly-handled solos from clarinet and oboe in the first movement, a lovely velvet resonance to the four Wagner tubas when they entered in the second, and a taut-limbed alertness to the trumpet theme in the third. Amid all the variety of sound and expression, these still managed to stand out.
In the end, music-making of this calibre leaves behind the satisfaction of a full and delicious meal. I wonder if they can do it as well again tonight?
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Grace Clifford perform at the Adelaide Town Hall tonight at 6.30pm