Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
August 10, 2018

When celebrating the guitar, the sounds of Spain are never far away. At the Adelaide Guitar Festival Symphony Gala, they were featured in two works by the undoubted giants of Spanish composition: Manuel de Falla and Joaquín Rodrigo.

Falla’s work was strongly influenced by the sounds of Spain’s national instrument, though the guitar itself was rarely featured in his music. It was entirely absent from his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, which nevertheless abounds in the modal scales and flamenco rhythms of the Andalusian folk scene, where the guitar reigns supreme. The first suite from Falla’s ballet made for a light-hearted and rousing concert opener, expertly delivered by Benjamin Northey and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Northey embraced the role of MC with enthusiasm and charm, introducing each work with a few well-chosen words, and usually getting some chummy laughs from the audience. As stagehands rearranged the scene behind him, Northey spoke with Australian composer Catherine Milliken about the piece which was about to receive its premiere performance: DACCORD, for guitar, soprano and orchestra, the first product of Milliken’s three-year residency with the ASO, which began in January. Negotiation, Milliken explained, is a key element of the work – guitar and voice, on an equal footing, interacting with each other and with the orchestra.

In a soft glow of tuned percussion and a humid haze of strings, the guitar spoke first. Its statements were short and brusque, given forth crisply by the soloist Vladimir Gorbach, with touches of dramatic lingering at the end of the occasional phrase. At first the string section was the guitar’s principal companion, and Milliken extracted an ecosystem of sound from it with the use of some unusual techniques – string slaps from the double basses, soughing, powdery bowing from the violins. The effect was almost insect-like, with drones, wails, rattles, buzzing, rasping, and brief solos from the first violin swelling forth passionately, just for an instant.

The winds and the voice next shaped a new soundworld, warmer, with softer lines and edges. A string of nonsense syllables bubbled from the throat of soprano Jessica Aszodi with a touch of theatricality, her sounds ranging from the soft and clinging to the zealously operatic. Guitar and voice now began to cautiously interact, trading rapid-fire syllables in a suspicious, almost accusatory exchange. Likewise, the segregated wind and string sections began to mingle, percussion playing throughout like a mediator, bridging the gap. Finally, as the climax was reached, the string section was backing the voice in a sonic turning-of-tables. The guitar made brief, crabbed retorts against the oozy softness of the vocal lines; the music dwindled and came to an uneasy and unexpected end.

Yet while it made for an engaging and varied experience, and while it formed an interesting contrast to the rest of the program, DACCORD did not quite achieve what it set out at first to do. The voice, with its innately sustained sound, was always to the fore of the guitar, which could match its partner only on the knife-edge of its attack. The drama was present, but not yet completely convincing. The final effect was indeed of an ‘ultimate but precarious agreement,’ as Milliken’s program note promised; but it was far from equal, with the voice having had everything its own way, and the guitar having grudgingly and bitterly given up the struggle.

After the interval, the Beijing Guitar Duo took to the stage with the ASO for a crowd-raising performance of Rodrigo’s Concierto Madrigal. This work is essentially a set of variations on a Renaissance theme, a ten-movement concerto for two intertwined and interchanging guitars. The proclamatory strums of the opening fanfare, with arresting fulness of sound, flung both doubt and caution to the winds. Guitarists Meng Su and Yameng Wang were on point, tightly together, and clearly having fun; the musicians of the ASO contributed a festival of sound, from bright, crisp winds in the fanfare to the dreamy, moonlit strings of the eighth movement.

In the slower variations, Northey maintained a measured sense of motive force so that nothing lagged, though it balanced on the cusp of stillness; Su and Wang were so well-matched that even their tender rubato was played as one, and their faster pacing was as smooth and accurate as an express train running dead on time. In the solo passage of the Zapateado, the difference between their alternating voices could be clearly heard, Su’s sound a little darker, huskier, with sharper edges, while Wang’s sound was a touch warmer and brighter.

The enthusiasm of the audience brought the Duo back for an encore, Herdboy’s Song from Chinese composer Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolour, as arranged for them by Manuel Barrueco. Soft, almost transparent like the watercolours of its title, this made for a delicate refresher after the brilliant hues of the Concierto.

With musicians like Gorbach, Aszodi and the Beijing Guitar Duo in its line-up, the Adelaide Guitar Festival is off to a flying start.