Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Grainger Studio. 8 Dec 2023
“Welcome to this unique listening experience…” is emblazoned across the large projection screen high above the orchestra, and unique it is. Gone are the usual rituals associated with a performance by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra: the orchestra files into the auditorium in silence, as does the conductor (David Sharp), to no applause; the lights are dimmed; half the audience are recumbent on yoga mats (many having just finished work and have come directly to the Grainger), and the another half sitting in ‘conventional’ seating; talking is at a minimum, and only in hushed whispers; the projection screen advises us there should be no applause, for anything, that latecomers will not be admitted – not even at a ‘convenient‘ pause in the program, and that anyone leaving the auditorium for whatever reason will not be readmitted.
Rules, rules, rules. But we all accept them (indeed, we welcome them!) and know they are essential preconditions for what will be a very different and intensely relaxing musical experience. And the delightful program all but guarantees it.
With the audience settled, the lights dim, and we become aware of our own breathing and hearts beating. We all become more acutely aware of silence, which is such an important element of any music. The silence itself becomes music (think John Cage’s composition 4’33”), and then the gentle strains of The Swan of Tuonela are uttered by the orchestra. It is part of Jean Sibelius’ tone poem Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22 and includes one of the best-known solos on cor anglais ever written. The harp has a key part to play as well, and the total effect is painfully soothing.
Where the plaintive and enigmatic sounds of the cor anglais voice a swan in the Sibelius, the oboe voices a cuckoo in Frederick Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. The elevated and almost-lonely sounds from the oboe conjure images of solitude in a leafy and dappled-light forest, and one’s sense of relaxation becomes even more heightened.
Erik Satie wrote three Gymnopédies, and the ASO performed two of them: No. III - Lent et grave, and No. 1 - Lent et douloureux. Originally written for piano, they are spectacularly well known and have been arranged for various ensembles. The original piano versions are beautifully written: they are sparse with every note chosen for a reason; nothing more is needed, and nothing that is included is superfluous. The arrangements used by the ASO preserved the simple beauty of the melodies and rhythms, but for this reviewer the arrangements became ‘busy’ at times and self-conscious. But the deep relaxation continued, and the combination of harp and piano was elevating.
Like the Gymnopédies, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte was also originally written for solo piano, but it is better known in its orchestral version (which Ravel himself wrote.) It works best when played slowly, as the composer intended, and conductor David Sharp did just that. A few initial shaky notes by the horns did nothing to detract from the dreaminess and fragile beauty of the piece.
The concert rounded out with a soulful performance of Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate. This is very contemporary work (composed in 2002) and is written in Pärt’s so-called ‘tintinnabular’ style (his term) which is substantially grounded in arpeggiated tonic triads with tonally divergent and sometimes beautifully dissonant motifs from other keys. Again, comparative sparseness of harmonizing notes is important, and a sense of fragility pervades even though there is contradictory overall sense of backbone and substance.
David Sharp seems to have an affinity for minimalist compositions, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is on a winner with its Sanctuary Series. Just as the ASO’s matinee concerts in the Elder Hall are lunchtime oases, so too the Sanctuary concerts are twilight havens from which to escape the working week.
When: 8 Dec
Where: Grainger Studio