It would be hard to imagine a more attractive midday programme than that which the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra presented yesterday. Mozart is the cornerstone of four concerts this season in the Elder Hall at the University of Adelaide. This first concert was devised and directed by the ASO’s concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto. Ballet was the central theme of her programme.
The ASO seems to have hit on a near-perfect formula: a short programme (this one was just over 65 minutes), without intermission, starting at 11.30am, just before lunchtime. It drew a full house – the seating capacity of Elder Hall is listed as 666 – largely comprising senior citizens, with a smattering of students. All this might send a message to the Elder management: financial constraints within the University have caused the Conservatorium to reduce their very popular series of lunchtime concerts.
Thirty ASO players took the stage for two movements of the ballet music of from Idomeneo K367. Contrary to custom, the 25-year-old Mozart wrote his own ballet music for the opera, first performed in Munich in January 1841. The ASO performance bustled along with flair and panache, without resorting to the kind of rushed tempi which characterize too many performances of other ensembles (nota bene: ACO!).
After barely 15 minutes of music, the diminutive Yoshimoto was joined onstage by ABC Classic FM presenter (and occasional ASO conductor himself) Graham Abbott. While a mini-army of stage-hands reduced the orchestra from 30 to three, Abbott and Yoshimoto engaged in a somewhat inconsequential chat about the differences in perception when a concertmaster leads an orchestra. Nothing particularly unusual about that: again, think ACO.
Yoshimoto was joined onstage by the ASO’s clarinettist and pianist (no names were printed in the skimpy programme sheet) for the three dances from Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat. One year away from its centenary, it’s likely that we’ll be hearing some deal of this iconic work in its various guises in the months ahead. The six bristling minutes of Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic take on these popular dance forms functioned as a kind of ear-freshener between the two works surrounding it. The trio’s performance was perhaps a mite too saccharine and refined for those who like a bit of roughness in their Stravinsky, although Yoshimoto cooked up a storm, scratching and seducing like the devil himself.
Appalachian Spring was not the original title of Aaron Copland’s ballet music. He had been commissioned to compose a ballet for Martha Graham. He had simply called the work Music for Martha. When he arrived at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. for the premiere in October 1944, he was surprised to see his work had acquired a new title: Appalachian Spring. Graham had lifted it from a poem by Hart Crane, but that’s where the connection began and ended. The poem had nothing to do with the homespun folksiness of her ballet. “Since that time,” Copland was fond of saying, “people have always said they can see the Appalachian mountains and sense the coming of Spring in my music.”
Copland scored his original ballet for 13 instruments (solo flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and 9 strings) and later extracted eight numbers to form a concert suite of around 25 minutes. Later still, both the full ballet and concert suite were arranged for symphony orchestra.
As Abbott noted in his introductory remarks, Appalachian Spring never fails to win new friends for 20th-century music, and there was the sense that many in this audience were hearing it for the first time in this chamber version. They responded with a sincere and prolonged ovation.
The ASO’s performance was moving and polished, particularly the variations on the Shaker song Simple Gifts. The luminous playing of clarinettist Dean Newcomb and flautist Geoffrey Collins lifted the performance to near ethereal heights. Occasionally, the bassoon appeared to dominate the wind trio sections, but then subsided into a more unified texture.
Musicians sometimes forget that music like Appalachian Spring was meant to accompany dancers. On occasion, break-neck tempi are beyond the capacity of dancers. There were a few moments in this ASO performance when the swirling roulades of scale passages were just a shade too fast for comfort.
Otherwise, this was a performance to be remembered and savoured, like the entire programme of the ASO’s first Mozart in Elder concert this season.