Whoever was the brains behind bringing Miriam Margolyes and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra together, they deserve great kudos. Apart from being a magnificent artistic partnership, the concert brought a huge number of families into the theatre in quantities which I can’t recall seeing in quite some time.
This programme, headlined by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, allowed families to introduce their children to orchestral masterpieces without in any way being condescending or age-specific. Whether or not an adult or child was new to orchestral music, it provided them with a high quality opportunity to discover great works and to appreciate orchestral instruments.
Miriam Margolyes needs little introduction – alas, what one can say? Seeing her at work is a great education in the art of bringing the spoken word to life. Margolyes without a doubt knows how to use her body, face and voice to add great dramatic effect to the most simplest of things, such as the short statement: “The Cat moved faster than Jo Stalin.” Her ability to be mildly self-deprecating – adding humorous depth through the smallest devices, such as a pause or an accented word – makes her a magnificent narrator.
The ASO performed three other works in addition to Peter and the Wolf: Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen Suite, Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from his opera, Prince Igor. The orchestra, under the direction of Chief Conductor Nicholas Carter, showed no signs of fatigue after their season in the pit accompanying the Adelaide Festival’s production of Handel’s opera, Saul.
The concert commenced with Margolyes briefly explaining the story, omitting the more racy, sensuous bits of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen. With wonderful adjectives, poise and pace, she brought the characters – such as the badger, the flies and the foresters – to life.
While in some people’s eyes choosing the Janáček was a bold and “left of centre” choice, I believe it is one to be applauded. lesser known work with some dissonance and unusual musical characteristics it is an under-appreciated gem. The Cunning Little Vixen Suite worked well as it is an interesting work, filled with drama, and captures the opera’s energy and excitement.
The ASO gave a fine performance of the Suite under Carter’s efficient and effective baton. They strongly captured and communicated the music’s drama with precision and energy. One appreciated their attention to the detail and ability to quickly, as one, change the mood from quiet and dark to fast and energetic. The darkness was heightened through Carter’s decision to make the softer sound softer than one expects, and through pace and pause, it was more powerful than other versions I have heard.
Britten’s 1945 educational film composition, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – based on a theme of Henry Purcell’s called Rondeau and written for the play, Abdelazer – is a work which provides great opportunities for an orchestra’s sections and individual musicians to shine.
The ASO performed the opening theme at a majestic and stately pace. Throughout the work, when each section and instrument had a solo, they shone – they brought their solo parts to life with clarity, enthusiasm and made the most of showing off their instruments. Particularly deserving of praise is the ASO’s Principal Trumpet Owen Morris who had a difficult solo of fast moving notes and passages, which he performed with ease – at no time was there a blemish of pitch, clarity or tempo.
By the end of Britten’s Guide the audience, thanks to Margolyes’ narration, Nigel Levings’ inventive lighting design and the polished performance from all, ensured that many in the audience had a greater knowledge and appreciation of the orchestra’s instruments.
Next was Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, in which there were a number of delightful orchestral moments, particularly the way ASO captured and depicted mystical characters and built and developed the dances’ energy and drama through well-chosen dynamics, tempi and pause. At no time did tempi drag and the Dances closed with a very lively and energetic tempo.
Closing the programme was Prokofiev’s much-loved Peter and the Wolf, in which Margolyes’ narration – with a few modernisations on Prokofiev’s original words – added great drama to the music. As was the case with the Britten, this too gave the orchestra some magnificent opportunities to demonstrate the virtuosity of sections and certain individuals. Throughout the work, each section and instrument of the orchestra brought the story’s characters to life with appropriate drama, humour and precision, and gave Prokofiev’s music gravitas. Acting Principal Flute Julia Grenfell deserves acknowledgement for the beautiful and energetic performance she gave of the bird. Her agility and energy made it easy to imagine it was a sprightly colourful bird who found great joy in its life in the woods.
Coinciding with the extension of Carter’s tenure as the ASO’s Chief Conductor (until the end of 2018), this concert showcased again – through his intelligent, effective conducting technique – the benefit of this special and invigorating musical partnership.