ABC Classic FM Classic 100 Twentieth Century Countdown

Adelaide Festival Centre. Adelaide Symphony Orchestra - 3 Dec

Every year since 2001 the best radio station in the word – nay, in the universe both seen and unseen – has surveyed its listeners to create a top 100 list.  The station of course is ABC Classic FM, and this year’s survey identified the best of the twentieth century – allegedly!  Over the last week or so Aunty has been broadcasting the list starting from number 100 (John Adam’s iconic opera ‘Nixon in China’ which made a big splash in Peter Sellar’s infamous 2001 Adelaide Festival Arts) and culminated with a live concert in the Adelaide Festival Centre. The top five pieces were played by the Adelaide Symphony orchestra with soloists, including past winners of the Young Performer's Award, and conducted by Benjamin Northey.  To keep the event fun, the list is kept secret and each piece announced one by one, as the list is played through, including the final concert.

It’s fun voting, it’s more fun experiencing the countdown and seeing if your choices make the list, and being at the final concert is almost better than sex.  Well, it would have been if the list turned out to be a bit more ‘adventurous’!  Nixon scraping in at 100 is almost as scandalous as Watergate was.  There being only 19 other pieces on the list written in the second half of the 20th century is outrageous, and frankly quite sad.

Maybe it takes time for a piece of music to really become part of the musical furniture - a classic – or maybe what I like is just too weird perhaps?

Coming in at number five was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and the first movement was played with a studied precision by the resplendently dressed Kristian Chong.  Northey appeared challenged in keeping the soloist and the orchestra together, and their embrace at the pieces conclusion seemed more one of relief than of congratulations.  But the audience loved it, as did I. 

‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan Williams came in at number four, and the concert started to hit its straps.  This is a most beautiful and dreamlike piece and violinist Ji Won Kim displayed effortless accuracy and almost meditative care as she entranced us all.  Northey confesses to not ever having conducted the Lark before, but you would not have known it.

Then, for something completely different, in every way, onto the stage bounded the effervescent Simon Tedeschi who blazed away on the piano with a deeply felt and individual interpretation of Gershwin’s ever popular ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.  Principal clarinet Dean Newcombe’s mellifluous and beautifully controlled opening glissando set the scene and was singled out by accomplished ABC Classic FM compères Julie Howard and Damien Beaumont for special recognition in the bows - if they hadn’t the audience would probably have lynched them!

It was disappointing, however, that number two should be Holst’s ‘The Planets’ suite.  There are two reasons this was a letdown:  Firstly, during the interval I could discern a few key phrases being rehearsed by the celeste player and harpists who remained on stage rather than retiring back stage for a cuppa or a G&T, and secondly, even though it is a great piece of music, it is almost worn out through being over played.  Popular opinion, oh well.......yawn!

For the number one position on marched spectacular young cellist Pei-Jee Ng who delivered a sensitive yet rapturous full performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with every note and phrase written with deep feeling across his trade-mark expressive face.

It was a fabulous concert, but disappointing due to some piece selections.  I wish I could return in fifty years’ time to see if popular opinion had changed and admitted some of the more ‘less safe’ and adventurous music of the 20th century into the mix.  Maybe the ASO itself needs to do more through its programming, but I guess the ticket buying punters must be pleased as well!

In the near future I would love to see the ABC Classic FM Classic 100 event focus on the second half of the 20th century, and for Australia’s orchestras and Aunty to increase their emphasis on this period.   Now that would be interesting!

Kym Clayton