St Peter’s Cathedral. 11 May 2012
The ASO’s ‘Icons in Sound’ Series 1 was a most remarkable concert. As I have remarked in previous reviews, great concert music is often as much an aural experience as it is a visual one, and Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs performed in Adelaide’s St Peter’s Cathedral ticked all the boxes.
First composed in 1976, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs burst onto the international stage almost thirty years later in 1993 when Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman recorded the work. It touched such a nerve in the community that it not only made it into the classical top 10 list, it also entered the popular charts and eclipsed the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. Remarkable, but true. But why? Some commentators have remarked that perhaps it tapped into a deep need for spiritual comfort in a largely secular world. Whatever the reason, it is a beautiful work and a deeply satisfying example of the joy that musical minimalism can bring.
The work is composed in three movements and each is centred on a heart-rending song for solo soprano. In the first, the mother of Christ talks to her dying son on the cross. In the second a young woman, who is a prisoner of the Nazis, fervently prays in her cell that her mother should not worry and their trust should be placed in God. In the third song a mother mourns her son who she fears has been lost at war. The songs were beautifully sung by Greta Bradman, and the imagery of her standing on the podium alongside Maestro Volmer beneath the large suspended crucifix in the cathedral above was palpable, fitting, and moving. Bradman is an expressive artist, and the music and text clearly touched her. Perhaps she recollected her farewells to her departed grandparents? There was an almost audible sigh from the audience when the orchestra played the signature motive E-G#-F# in the second movement. It is indeed haunting and instantly recognisable and comforting. It is the stuff of goosebumps.
The concert commenced with Henri Tomasi’s seldom played Fanfares Liturgiques for brass ensemble. The work was originally called Fanfares Concertantes and comprises themes from Tomasi’s opera Don Juan de Mañera. Composed in four sections, it is not truly liturgical insomuch as it does directly respond to any liturgy, but each section has a strong connection to faith and religion. Without knowing its programme, the piece presents as a powerful and tight composition, and it offered principal trombonist Cameron Malouf ample opportunity to demonstrate his skill. However, when one knows the programme of the piece it reaches out and communicates on a quite different level. Again, the cathedral setting makes it live.
The concert was broadcast live on ABC Classical FM radio and was presented by the inimitable Julie Howard. As a filler between the Tomasi and the Górecki, to allow the orchestra to reconfigure itself, she briefly interviewed percussionist Steven Peterka and tubist Peter Whish-Wilson who intrigued the capacity audience with explanations of the acoustics and the long reverberation time of the cathedral and how they, and other musicians, needed to adjust their techniques to ensure they were in sympathy with the venue.
Ahh, the joys of live performance.
The next Icons of Sounds concert is not until Friday 9th November, and it will feature contemporary British composer John Taverner’s The Protecting Veil, a deeply moving and mysterious composition for cello and strings. Like the Górecki, Taverner excels in minimalist writing on religious themes. He is well known for his composition Song for Athene, also for orchestra and cello, which was played at the funeral of Princess Diana. This concert should also sell out. Do not delay in securing your tickets!
Where: St Peter's Cathedral