When you’ve got an outfit as professional and talented as the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, it does not come as a surprise that they can be flexible in programming.

Their soloist for this concert, Brisbane-based violinist, Courtenay Cleary, was in Canberra (she had given a brilliant chamber recital a week earlier) and ready to perform Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35. But she had to return to Brisbane post-haste because of COVID restrictions introduced in Canberra in response to the Brisbane cluster outbreak.

What to do? The orchestra could simply have shortened the concert. But not the CSO. They just filed the Korgold away and pulled out something else – Sibelius’ Symphony No 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82, no less.

Jessica Cottis Jessica Cottis. Photograph © Kaupo Kikkas[/caption]

It is fortuitous that the orchestra’s Artistic Adviser and conductor for this concert, Jessica Cottis, is a Sibelius specialist. But that an orchestra can substitute such a major work and deliver a starry performance into the bargain says a lot. Cottis describes the Sibelius as “uplifting, expansive and joyous”. It certainly was.

Cottis’ conducting style is very expressive, often exuberant, drawing vivid colour and texture from the orchestra. From the seemingly relentless building of the first movement to its climactic coda, to the lyrical beauty of the second, and the majestic grandeur of the final, with its unique six-chord cadence, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra delivered a stunning performance, with balance precision and well-controlled dynamics. And the audience responded accordingly, calling Cottis back to the stage several times.

But first, there was Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, literally a ballet for young, pink tutu be-decked elephants – all 50 of them – with a beautiful female handler for each. Apparently, the elephants were not particular enamoured with the work, but they did perform it many more times. It’s unlikely they ever would forget it.

With a twisted quote from Schubert’s Marche Militaire No 1, the Circus Polka is not so much a lumbering, trunk-swaying, bottom-of-the-register piece, as a light-hearted, witty one, full of changing rhythms, harmony structures and moods, but with the polka bit only coming in at the end.

Cottis directed a quite strict tempo throughout and the orchestra picked up on the humour in the piece superbly. It was not difficult to imagine the elephants on twinkle toes.

After interval, there was more wit and whimsy from the pen of young Australian composer, Holly Harrison. Her Fizzin’ Fury is an amalgam of doom metal, punk, progressive rock, electronic dance music, disco and even Dixieland. If that sounds confusing or disturbing, the piece is not. It is a highly energetic and entertaining work, with driving beats throughout.  Towards the end a whimsical flute, played brilliantly by principal flute, Teresa Rabe, seeks a solo, only to be drowned out. But it has the last say, a sort of diminuendo downward scale triumph, to finish the work.

Finishing the concert was Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Joining the orchestra was soprano Lorina Gore (the orchestra’s Artist in Focus for 2021), playing Anna 1 and Anna II. The Barbershop Quartet (Dan Walker, Samuel Sakker, Charles Bogle and Adrian Tamburini) played the family. The bass (Tamburini) plays the mother, just one of the paradoxes in the work.

The libretto is by Bertolt Brecht. Weill didn’t like Brecht the man, but he did like Brecht the librettist. The feeling about personalities may have been mutual.

Described as a ‘sung ballet’ (Anna II originally was a dancer), The Seven Deadly Sins is the story of Annas I & II (perhaps they are one and the same?) being sent off to seven US cities to make money. But, in each city, they face a deadly sin.

Gore was brilliant in both singing and acting. Her singing was crystal clear, her superb diction rising effortlessly above the orchestra and filling the hall. And her acting was light-hearted and engaging – even with the limited scope she had, simply entering and exiting the stage (there was no set). Quite the quick-change artist, she appeared in various costumes. There was a drab brown travelling coat with a drab brown suitcase, and a collection of brightly coloured, sequinned gowns. In Anger, she sported a bath towel, with another wrapped around her head, but stockings and sparkling silver high heels put lie to any suggestion she had been in the bath.

A highlight of the “show” was in Gluttony, with the quartet singing a capella. The family notes Anna is in Philadelphia and making money, but she’s signed a contract that says her weight will remain precisely at 118 pounds.  The family implores her to perform to the contractual terms, noting that “Gluttons never go to heaven”.  Diction was clear, harmonies perfect, and there was an effusive underlying humour in their delivery.

Humour and wit ran all the way through The Seven Deadly Sins, underscored brilliantly by Cottis and her orchestra, giving a beautifully measured and attractive support to the singers.  In Anger especially, the shimmering strings left no doubt as to the character of that deadly sin.

But, in the end, perhaps the seven deadly sins were not quite so deadly after all.

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