Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Adelaide Festival Theatre. 6 Apr 2018
The audience is huge. There is a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. Sure, Wagner’s Overture from Tannhäuser is going to be enjoyable – it always is – and Bernstein’s seldom heard quirky violin concerto is going to be fresh and interesting, especially at the hands of esteemed violinist James Ehnes, but everyone is there for something else, and that is the booming C-major chord on the J.W. Walker organ at the beginning of the maestoso section of Saint-Saëns’ mighty Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78. And it is a blast!
Although conductor Nicholas Carter takes the Tannhäuser at an overall regulation pace, the opening seems slightly on the brisk side and there are initially some timing and dynamics issues. These are quickly overcome and the orchestra settles into a robust reading that brings the expansive melodies to the fore.
Bernstein opted not to call his violin concerto by that name, but rather categorised it as a Serenade. Scored in five movements, it is a quintessentially modern composition that artfully fuses jazz inflected rhythms and melodies on brass with an expansive orchestration with a significant percussion section. James Ehnes clearly enjoys playing it, and there is an obvious sense of camaraderie and in-the-moment music making between he and Carter. The composition features attention-grabbing dialogues between the solo violinist and other principals in the orchestra, and in this regard concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto and principal cellist Simon Cobcroft are captivating to watch (and listen to).
But the main game is Saint-Saëns’ so-called Organ Symphony. It is so popular it almost guarantees to sell any concert in which it is programmed. The crashing C-major chord on the organ followed by the triumphal brass fanfares and rolling scale passages for four hands at the grand piano are the stuff of legend. It’s big. It’s exhilarating. It’s almost too much. It is so popular it runs the risk of being a ‘pot-boiler’.
The main theme of the maestoso is so popular that it has been ‘borrowed’ numerous times, such as in the 1977 pop-song If I Had Words by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley. It was also famously used in the much-loved Australian Babe films.
But it would be a huge mistake to think that the maestoso is all that the symphony has to offer – that all roads lead to the maestoso. It has so much more, and hearing (and seeing) it live is the only way to enjoy it – recordings never seem to capture the full sonic soundscape. Carter and the ASO approach this iconic work with the sensitivity it merits.
The occasional dialogue between the organ and plucked strings is sublime. Locating the grand piano near the basses, cellos and brass (rather than to the left of the conductor closer to the woodwinds and violins) gives a distinct point of aural interest. The strict timing and articulation in the fugal sections is reassuring – something to hang on to during the wild ride.
This is the first of the ASO’s Master Series for 2018, and it is adrenaline-charged! Get on board for the rest!
When: 6 Apr
Where: Festival Theatre