★★★★☆ Audacious programming pays off in this memorable Guitar Festival highlight.

Adelaide Town Hall
August 13, 2016

The opportunity to hear the combination of classical guitar with an orchestra is undoubtedly one of the most alluring enticements to the concert hall. But it can be a treacherous alliance to produce in a live performance: success is contingent upon the amplification levels of the guitar, the acoustic environs of the hall, and the extent to which the orchestra and conductor remain receptive to the soloist’s capacity to be heard in their softest and most intimate moments. Fortunately, on this occasion, an all too rare equilibrium was achieved consistently by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under conductor Benjamin Northey, who allowed the impressive array of guitar talent to glisten with cool elegance. The omission of a performance of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez in the Festival may have disappointed some, but the chance to hear his lesser performed Concierto andaluz for four guitars and orchestra, alongside the world premiere of two new Festival-commissioned concertos for the instrument, was a rare gift indeed.

Benjamin Northey conducts the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Claudio Raschella.

The opening Tiempo de Bolero of Rodrigo’s Concierto andaluz generated a festive atmosphere that transported the audience directly to Spain. Soloists Karin Schaupp, Aleksandr Tsiboulski, Leonard Grigoryan and Ken Murray exhibited an impressive display of unity, often impeccably synchronised. However, in the infectious opening motif, the orchestra were not always immaculately precise, sometimes a fraction early, other times a fraction late. Such shortcomings were quickly surmounted as the melodic line passed to the strings, sweeping over the top of the soloists with a golden radiance, an evocation of a sun-drenched Andalusian afternoon so vivid you could almost smell it. After the pesky admission of latecomers, the bar was raised to another level in the Adagio, where Karin Schaupp took the more soloistic role, projecting the melodic line with effortless grace and a seductive sense of rubato. Here, the orchestra could hardly have been better, providing gentle support that never once threatened to undermine the clarity of the soloists.

The world premiere of Cuban composer Leo Brouwer’s Austral for guitar and chamber orchestra proved to be a thoroughly absorbing work, performed with brooding conviction by the inimitable Spanish guitarist Ricardo Gallén. There were moments of tender beauty amid icy dissonances which frequently teased at resolutions, only to be abandoned as another instrument would take the melodic line up a semitone. Whilst the orchestra occasionally sounded a little uncomfortable, Gallén was impressive throughout, producing an exceptional diversity of tonal colours.

The only work on the programme not to feature the guitar, Ravel’s Mother Goose provided a welcome respite from the concerto form, and allowed the ASO to really show their best. It was here the orchestra sounded most comfortable, capturing all the exquisite delicacy of this ethereal suite. There was superlative playing throughout – particularly from the oboes, flutes and clarinets, while concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto was divine in the fourth movement, Conversations of Beauty and the Beast.

It was a bold move to programme two new works into one concert, and an even bolder one to conclude such a concert with a work like Andrew Ford’s Raga, a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra that had the ASO firing on all cylinders. The notion of placing an electric guitar and drum kit on the same stage as an orchestra may seem like a dichotomy, and I suppose some purists may even think the combination sacrilegious, but I’m not really sure I care. Fusing the Western concerto with the classical Indian raga and elements of rock and roll, Raga captivated from beginning to end. The soloist, Zane Banks, was terrific – the perfect choice to embody a role that the composer described as “a combination of Ravi Shankar and Jerry Garcia”. Often malevolent, sometimes dreamy, the work seemed charged with an inner pain, both muscular and exotic. Indian influences were subtly interwoven into the mix, the balance often intoxicating. There were brief moments of incoherence, where clarity and ideas were lost as the orchestra grappled with the taxing demands of the work. Raga evidently needs a little more time to really show its best, but this was an impressive premiere nevertheless. As the cadenza fired up and the beat of the drum kit escalated the intensity, some members of the orchestra worked hard to suppress a smile. Some of them failed. But they need not have worried. The audience smiled too, and it was quite clear by the end that everyone had thoroughly enjoyed this exhilarating new composition.

The aesthetics of guitar concertos were both reinforced and challenged in this concert in refreshing and unpredictable ways. Too often are audiences left alienated by programmes of new music which become an assault on the senses, too complex and inaccessible to be appreciated in the first performance. Regrettably, the inevitable consequence is that less and less new music is commissioned and performed by our orchestras, and the rejuvenation and renewal of the art form suffers as the tried and true paradigm of overture-concerto-symphony is repeated ad nauseam. By judiciously placing Rodrigo and Ravel at the beginning of each half, an effective mediation between the craving for the familiar and the appetite for the new was achieved very successfully. I would not be surprised if both Leo Brouwer’s Austral and Andrew Ford’s Raga are performed in future guitar festivals abroad. They certainly deserve to.

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