Symphony Series 3: Grandeur

Symphony Series 3 Grandeur 2024Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Adelaide Town Hall. 12 Apr 2024


Grandeur was the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s third concert in its flagship Symphony series, and it was very satisfying.


The ASO’s Symphony Series usually follow a tried-and-true format, along the lines of an introductory piece, by concerto and a symphony. The pot boilers get rolled out, because the audience love ‘em and they keep ticket sales ticking over, and occasionally there is a new composition. Grandeur didn’t follow this format: there was no symphony or concerto, although there was a new composition (a world première in fact!) and another modern piece (an Australian première) which were both uncomfortable bedfellows for the two high baroque pieces that were performed (one of them was indeed ‘grand’!) There was no obvious narrative to the program although Stephanie Eslake’s entertaining and instructive program notes tried to create musical glue where there really wasn’t any to bind the program together. Her notes were more a post hoc intellectual exercise than anything else.


Experiencing Grandeur was akin to sitting down with one’s own collection of CDs and sampling at random. But that can be enjoyable, and Grandeur was too.


Dobrinka Tabakova is a contemporary Bulgaria-British composer, and her recent composition for small string ensemble Barbican Glade was commissioned to to mark London’s Barbican Centre’s 40th birthday. The ensemble and conductor were already on stage as the audience entered the Town Hall auditorium and they began the concert without any acknowledgement. Esteemed British conductor Stephen Layton drew the purest unfussed tremolo-free tones from the strings and the overall effect was drone-like, almost inscrutable. This was an Australian première, and it would seem reasonable to expect that Barbican Glade will grace our concert halls again, and again.


In stark contrast, this was followed by JS Bach’s Cantata No.51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! (Exult in God in every Land), and it was sung by the ever-popular Australian Soprano Sara Macliver. Although Macliver was overpowered at times in the first Aria section, her glorious voice perfectly joined forces with the orchestra for the second, third and fourth sections, before she was joined by principal trumpeter David Khafagi and they both excelled in a coloratura climactic final Alleluja.


As the first half of the comparatively short program began with a première, so did the second with Before the Law by Adelaide composer Jakub Jankowski. In this case, the ASO commissioned the work, and this was its world première! And what a remarkable work it is, and like the Tabakova, it deserves to be heard again, and around the world. Jankowski has set to music an extract in the form of a parable from Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, in which a protagonist seeks to gain access to law and legal process but is thwarted in doing so by a ‘gatekeeper’. The message is that the legal system is too difficult for an average person to negotiate or indeed fully comprehend. This is all very topical with high profile national and international court cases being splashed across our daily newspapers almost on a daily basis. Why Jankowski chose this as source material is not known, but the parable has been referenced in a number of other artistic works , including by American composer Arnold Rosner who arranged the text for a baritone singer and orchestra. Rosner’s work is excellent, but Jankowski’s version is altogether different. It features a soprano voice (Sara Macliver again) who sings the text associated with the protagonist, and the gatekeeper as well as a narrator. The three voices are differentiated through various musical choices: instrumentation, tempo, dynamics, and rhythm. In particular, Jankowski has the the soprano voice the gatekeeper through an electric megaphone, which gives the text a raucous and cruelly authoritative character. Macliver’s clarity is suboptimal on a few occasions when she is again stretched by the full orchestra, and it becomes necessary to consult the printed program for the words she is singing. But her performance is electric and her powerful and lyrical voice can easily be heard above the swelling orchestra. Jankowski doubles the voice with wind instruments in the composition’s latter stages and the effect is made even more eery and distant as the soprano is joined by seemingly detuned brass as she slowly leaves the stage making ‘white noise’ sounds into the megaphone. At times it sounds other worldly and Kafka’s message of unreachable justice rings loudly in our ears.


Jankowski’s Before the Law is as theatrical as it is musical. It thrives in the concert hall and would likely be less impactful as a recording, but it can be heard again on ABC Classic radio on 3 May at 1pm. This reviewer will certainly be tuning in. It deserves to be listened to again. Jakub Jankowski has already had a number of compositional successes, and this is another.


Jakub Jankowski is one to watch out for.


The program finally became “grand” with a well-articulated reading of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. The Fireworks has all the musical hallmarks of a so-called ‘pot boiler’: it’s fun to listen to, and to watch, and it has memorable tunes that easily become ear worms. Unfortunately, we don’t hear it all that often in our concert halls. Layton controlled the might of the orchestra to preserve the tight phrasing and control the rapidly changing dynamics that are needed for this piece to truly take flight and soar it did.


This was a perfect concert program for Layton: major vocal works, Baroque, and British-infused compositions. He did it so well.


Kym Clayton


When: 12 Apr

Where: Adelaide Town Hall

Bookings: Closed