Smoke And Mirrors

Smoke and mirrors AWO 2023Adelaide Wind Orchestra. Elder Hall. 25 Nov 2023


The Adelaide Wind Orchestra is a musical gem on the Adelaide art music landscape, and they will soon be playing on the world stage at the prestigious International Conference of the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles to be held in South Korea in July 2024. In fact, the Adelaide Wind Orchestra is one of only a few ensembles world-wide to be invited to perform. Yes, the Adelaide Wind Orchestra is that good, and their recent concert – entitled Smoke and Mirrors (named after the opening piece of the concert) – demonstrated why they are held in such high regard internationally.


The program followed a standard structure to be expected from regular symphony orchestra: an overture to open followed by a concerto, and finishing with a symphony. The overture Smoke and Mirrors, by American composer Erica Muhl, is a stand-alone work (it is not an introduction to a larger work), and it is very exciting. Muhl says of her composition that it is a paraphrase of musical ideas from many of her compositions arranged in achronological order. As such, the piece comes across as being somewhat episodic and lacking a cohesive schema, but the episodes are just electric! At times it is sci-fi inflected and futuristic in the thoughts it evokes in the mind of the listener, and at other times it is inward looking and brooding. The various sections are sometimes linked by exceptionally melodic and surprising statements from flutes and chimes. When it was over, guest conductor Kate Mawson took a restrained bow, and one was free to draw breath again!


Smoke and Mirrors was followed by an astonishing performance of Jennifer Higdon’s remarkable Percussion Concerto. Originally written for a full orchestra (that is, with strings as well), the composition won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and it’s easy to see why. In any concerto, there is an obvious dialogue between the soloist and the rest of the orchestra. In Higdon’s composition, there is a three-way dialogue between the percussion soloist, the percussion section of the orchestra, and the rest of the orchestra itself, and the result is fascinating. However, the main interest from an audience member’s perspective is watching the sheer theatricality and physicality of the percussion soloist at work. On this occasion it was Sami Butler, who is the Associate Principal Percussionist with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, and his performance was electrifying. (Why hasn’t the ASO itself programmed this work? Why?)


Butler had numerous instruments set up in four locations across the full width of the Elder Hall stage. Let’s face it, marimba, xylophones, drum kits etc all take up a lot of room, and Butler had to move quickly and precisely between them over the duration of the single movement work. The nature of the music is eclectic. Like Smoke and Mirrors before it, the concerto doesn’t have a structure that a listener can easily latch onto in order to try and find meaning. Very soon, the listener abandons all attempts at this and lets the myriad of musical ideas take over and transport them to an almost otherworld sonic landscape all the while marvelling at Butler’s sublime musicality. His purely solo sections – we might call them cadenzas – were totally absorbing, and the emerging smiles on the faces of the members of the orchestra were only exceed by those of the transfixed audience.


Connor Fogarty’s Symphony for Wind Orchestra stood in stark contrast to the overture and the concerto. It frequently presents musical ideas that remind the listener of other things. Fogarty, in his program notes, states that the second movement is inspired by John Adam’s iconic piece Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which indeed it does, and the final movement evokes Shostakovich. Throughout, the playing by the orchestra is first-rate: luscious sounds from the tubas and other bass instruments, mournfully beautiful phrases from the woodwinds, delicate linking motifs from the harp that provide connection and meaning, sweet clarinets, lively flutes, expectant oboes, cheerful but majestic brass, and percussion of course to thread the various elements together.


Fogarty was in the audience and graciously received appreciative applause from the audience as well as from the conductor Bryan Griffiths, who did such a splendid job bringing the entire concert together.


Yes, the Adelaide Wind Orchestra is good, and they will be featuring music by Fogarty and other Australian composers, including Anne Cawrse, David John Lang, and Holly Harrison in their performances in South Korea. They deserve the support of the South Australian art music loving public, and you can start by visiting their website.


Kym Clayton


When 25 Nov

Where: Elder Hall

Bookings: Closed