Music review: Canberra Symphony Orchestra Rachmaninov concert
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Music review: Canberra Symphony Orchestra Rachmaninov concert

CSO Concert: Rachmaninov. Llewellyn Hall. Wednesday November 4, 2015

What a magnificent performance to complete the Canberra Symphony Orchestra's season! This concert was without a doubt the finest for the CSO this year. The choice of works by Marquez, Kats-Chernin and Rachmaninov stimulated the musicians and delighted the audience. Nicholas Milton provided the witty commentary and directed the orchestra with unfaltering passion.

Canberra Symphony Orchestra percussionists Wyanna O'Keeffe and Veronica Bailey with toy instruments  used in the CSO  concert.

Canberra Symphony Orchestra percussionists Wyanna O'Keeffe and Veronica Bailey with toy instruments used in the CSO concert. Credit:Jay Cronan

Arturo Marquez's Danzon No. 2 offers musicians a wonderfully exaggerated dance form in the shape of a symphonic poem, moving from the exquisite lyricism of the woodwind solos through lush string textures and extravagant brass passages to insistent rhythmic sections building to frenzied climaxes. With a large orchestra there is much that could go wrong, but in this interpretation, the CSO maintained an exciting and responsive performance. Rainer Saville's trumpet solo was the kind of sound that makes you want to leap from your seat with joy.

Golden Kitsch by Elena Kats-Chernin was a revelation. Well known for her charming shorter works and themes for Phillip Adam's Late Night Live radio show, in Golden Kitsch the composer unleashes the full power of her magic-realist vision in a sophisticated longer work. The opening thread of notes played first on a toy piano then mirrored on the concert grand wove a web to draw the listener irresistibly into the spiralling complexities of layers and textures of sparkling sounds from vibraphone, waterphone, singing bowls, bowed discs and other instruments – Claire Edwardes playing like a high priestess. The orchestra is never idle, alternating rattle-whirling and singing with their customary instruments. Always one to base her work on powerful rhythms, in Golden Kitsch Kats-Chernin makes the pulse palpable in the shimmering light and shade of her writing.

Percussionist Claire Edwardes was soloist in the CSO's  final concert for the 2015 season.

Percussionist Claire Edwardes was soloist in the CSO's final concert for the 2015 season.

Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances are captivating for the strong sense of the composer's determination to venture away from old compositional territory into a freer style. The lovely woodwind solos that unfold moving from instrument to instrument in the Non Allegro movement are like hearing the composer offer ideas for discussion that develop into a grand debate as the orchestral layers build, the brass and string textures thicken and the overall volume swells exuberantly. The dynamics of the trumpet playing were particularly dramatic.

This was both a triumphant and a poignant evening, as the last two concerts for 2015 mark the end of Henry Laska's term as chief executive of the CSO. Canberra owes Laska a great debt for the persistence with which he has kept the orchestra at the heart of the national capital's musical life for the last seven years despite the savage funding cuts to the performance teaching programs at the ANU School of Music. He was farewelled royally with the Trepak from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, which included a five-tambourine salute.

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