Adelaide Town Hall. 4 May 2012
Stravinsky, Haydn, and Sibelius are strange bed-follows, but add Brett Dean to the mix and you have a concert program that struggles to have a ‘centre’. It was indeed an eclectic program but, as it turned out, it offered much interest and excitement and it is a great pity that many regular concertgoers appeared to stay away. What could explain this? Maybe because the program lacked a readily apparent coherence? Maybe because at least half of the pieces were not well known?
Whatever the reason, any doubts about the program disappeared for me after the interval. Maestro Brett Dean – surely a living Australian treasure! – addressed the audience from the podium and outlined the raison d’être for Sibelius’s Scene with Cranes and his own composition Fire Music. Together they are about death and renewal, and Dean requested that the audience only applaud at the end of the program. It was fitting.
Fire Music was a remarkable experience, but it must be sensed in the concert hall; a recording would not suffice. A performance of Fire Music is as much a visual experience as an acoustic one. Dean located three small groups of musicians throughout the auditorium: a string quartet at the rear, and a small percussion/brass/woodwind ensemble to each side. This added much depth to the music – a ‘sensurround’ experience as it were – and it demanded that you watch as well as listen. The percussionists commanded an array of instruments, standard and non-standard, including drawing violin bows across metallic sheets and spinning plastic tubing in the air to create eerie wind sounds, as well as drumming on empty glass bottles. The effect was electric and disturbing. The piece mimicked the sounds of a conflagration and created a sense of awe and foreboding that was deeply empathetic with the 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ Victorian bushfires that were the inspiration for the piece. At its conclusion the audience was drawn to its feet, but I can’t help imagine that those sitting upstairs in the dress circle and gallery would have missed much of the visual excitement below. I’m so glad that I caught sight of the small ensembles setting up during the interval which prompted me to move downstairs for the second half of the program to get a better view; I could not have anticipated the visual and aural feast I was to experience!
Even though the ‘main event’ for me turned out to be what was the Australian première of Dean’s own composition, the evening also featured Haydn’s charming Symphony No 86 – the last of his so-called Paris symphonies – which was tightly executed, as well Stravinsky’s Four Studies for Orchestra. The ASO beautifully controlled the Canticle – the third section of the Studies. It is strongly suggestive of liturgical chants and its main theme is reminiscent of Liszt’s Totentanz. Satisfying, mystical, and moody. A buttering-up for the ‘main event’.
This program reminded me that there is so much music out there yet to hear and to experience, and that wonderful institutions like the ASO are expert in continuing my education. So, bravo Arvo Volmer, bravo ASO, and bravo Brett Dean.
Where: Adelaide Town Hall