“New music is always a bit scary,” said Canberra-based composer, teacher, recording artist, and jazz musician, Michael Dooley, as he addressed a large audience in the pre-concert talk to the world premiere of his Piano Concerto No 1 in C Sharp Minor.  But he was talking about the atonal music of the avant-garde period, a form of dissonant “angular” and unresolved music, which did not resonate with him when studying composition at the Sydney Conservatorium. In Dooley’s assessment, Bach’s music, with which he was obsessed, always resolved, offering hope. “The reason,” remarked his teacher, “was that Bach had God; we don’t have God anymore.”

Andrew Rumsey performing with the National Capital Orchestra. Photograph © Peter Hislop

Dooley’s piece is anything but atonal. A deeply personal piece, it is full of charming melodies and rich harmonies reflecting his spiritual faith, commemorating his parents, and “getting on with life”.  The inspiration came from the divine concepts of truth and grace. “Truth,” he says, “is important, but it can be harsh and hurtful. Grace is forgiveness and working together to create something beautiful.”

For the first public outing of Dooley’s concerto, young-gun pianist, Andrew Rumsey, who already has performed in Carnegie Hall, played a hand-made Shigeru-Kawai SK-EX concert grand, brought to Australia especially for this performance. Squashed onto the smallish stage of the 350-seat theatre, The Q, in Queanbeyan NSW, was the National Capital Orchestra, Canberra’s leading amateur ensemble. In August, the orchestra’s conductor, Leonard Weiss, is off to the US to study Master of Music, Conducting, at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore under maestra Marin Alsop.

In traditional Classical form and structure, the brooding beginning in the first of the three movements is a kind of foreword – an overture – the piano entering later with a simple theme, transitioning to a second theme very reminiscent of the Irish folk tunes in Dooley’s roots. As the movement unfolds, the “Irishness” of the second theme reiterates, becoming more complex and virtuosic.

The second movement, Adagio, Dooley dedicated to his parents. Beginning in a sad, minor key, as a duet between piano and cello (Dooley’s father played it) and later a clarinet solo (his mother’s instrument), it mourns their passing, but ultimately transposes “through the circle of thirds,” says Dooley, into a major key and a rich lyrical pastoral style, expressing the hope, one day, of a heavenly reunion.

The final movement, Vivace, is just that – lively and brisk – dancing along on playful tippy-toe, offering the hope of a positive future with its jazzy stylings and fancy rhythms but calling on the soloist’s virtuosity in spades with many fast-paced arpeggios and chromatics.

Playing from memory, Rumsey was agile, lyrical, assured and tender, showing a strong personal connection with both piece and composer. After all, he had asked Dooley to write it for him.

Weiss, is becoming quite the concerto conductor, being ever watchful of the soloist and letting the orchestra take the lead when called on but providing well-controlled support when needed. In the first movement there were moments when the orchestra overpowered the piano, but overall, Weiss maintained fine balance, especially in the theatre’s small space and dry acoustic.

Both Rumsey and Dooley were well-deserving of the audience’s standing ovation for a piece that is approachable and thoroughly listenable. In the true spirit of grace, many people worked together in this piano concerto to create something beautiful.

Michael Dooley, Leonard Weiss and Andrew Rumsey. Photograph © Peter Hislop

On being called back to the stage, Rumsey responded with an encore solo, Mili Balakirev’s transcription of The Lark from Mikhail Glinka’s suite, A Farewell to Saint Petersburg.  It complemented Dooley’s work, starting soft, slow and simple, but building into a dynamo of technical demands that only a virtuoso can fill. Rumsey filled them.

It’s enough for an amateur orchestra to take on a new work and present its world premiere. To back it up with a monumental piece the ilk of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 must be considered courageous. There were a few problems in this performance – a rather tentative start, the strings struggling with some of the presto passages, at times rather ponderous playing and at others stilted.

But those brief moments were overtaken by many warm, rich, romantic sounds so prevalent in Rach’s music. The second movement, Allegro molto, featured some marvellous playing by the horns, with the orchestra achieving delightful lightness, liveliness and vitality. The third, Adagio, featured an accomplished clarinet solo and finished brilliantly as Weiss took the orchestra through a slow fade to nothing. In the martialistic fourth, the orchestra really hit its straps, marching along with assuredness and beautifully sweeping strings. Finally, and so reminiscent of Rach’s piano concertos, his second symphony, and this concert, ended with a grand flourish.