Nicholas Carter, conductor

Paddington Town Hall, Sunday March 6

Berlioz Symphonie fantastique

Weber Overture to ‘Oberon’

Demersseman Introduction and Polonaise for Ophicleide and Orchestra

The improvements in this orchestra since its first outing last year are notable, primarily due to conductor Nicholas Carter’s ever-strengthening grasp of his craft. He has a clear beat; cues entries decisively and only occasionally falls into the old trap for young conductors of using both hands simultaneously to keep time. His tempi are excellent and his style often graceful. Under his direction the orchestra played with commitment and energy.

The orchestra’s remit is to perform music of the Romantic era in a style as close to the original as research and intelligent guesswork allows, reviving some near-obsolete instruments such as the serpent and the ophicleide. This type of musical research has been developing for the best part of 70 years, primarily in the fields of early and Baroque music. In the main, the movement largely ignored the Romantic period; musicologists tended to leapfrog the era with disdain, landing in the mid-twentieth century. It often seemed that the cosy relationship between the adherents of these disparate periods meant that much of the music written, from Schumann through Tchaikovsky to Richard Strauss, was unfairly neglected by many music academics.  

It was only a matter of time before the Romantic repertoire was treated to a renaissance and we now have composers such as Brahms, Mahler and Berlioz revisited, admittedly with mixed results. One example on CD is Roger Norrington’s ascetic Mahler 4 with the Stuttgart Orchestra, a performance so drained of warmth and meaning that it verges on a pointless intellectual exercise.

The first recording of Symphonie fantastique to benefit from rigorous musicological research was made last year by Anima Eterna Brugge under Jos van Immerseel (Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT 100101). Sydney’s own resident Romantics have just done the same thing in performance. In both cases the results are remarkable; although the Belgian performance lost power in the final moments, Carter’s maintained energy and vigour throughout. I cannot remember a more exciting concert performance of this work, though hearing it in a hall similar in size to those that would have been used when these compositions were first heard did contribute. The tonal impact compared with that of the Sydney Opera House’s acoustically challenged Concert Hall is dramatic.

Also on the menu was Weber’s Oberon overture: transcendent music that influenced nearly everybody from Mendelssohn through to Wagner and Debussy. As the ophicleide was required for the Berlioz, a droll work by Jules Demersseman (the Introduction and Polonaise for Ophicleide and Orchestra) was also included on the programme. It was not without interest, although the enterprising soloist, Nick Byrne, had his work cut out for him. Occasional lapses notwithstanding, the instrument sounded a bit like a trombone or horn player after a night on the town. All in all, a splendid concert.