Rodrigo Madrigal. National Capital Orchestra. Matt Withers and Callum Henshaw, guitars. Conductor: Leonard Weiss. Saturday, April 7, 2018, 7.30pm, Llewellyn Hall. Pre-concert talk given by composer Jessica Wells at 6.30pm in the Athenaeum. Tickets: premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=NCOCONCE18#.
The National Capital Orchestra's upcoming concert is a celebration of rhythm and texture with Spanish guitars taking centre stage.
Opening the concert is the world premiere of composer Jessica Wells' new work Zodiac Animalia. This 12-movement work was originally written as a technical exercise. Wells wanted to write a short orchestral piece in which she kept ideas simple, while showing off some of her most adventurous orchestration tricks.
The programmatic content of the work – each movement being based on a different animal in the Chinese Zodiac – will likely be obvious from the first beat. The opening movement features tapping on the bongos and "scurrying" strings to simulate rats. The ox is portrayed by running a rubber powerball across a bass drum head; the bassoons and contrabassoon give pigs the gift of flight; another movement features a sinister "film noir" dragon.
While the work has some obviously humorous content (including the performance direction Pig Mosso), Wells stresses that she doesn't want to be too prescriptive.
"I want the audience to leave the concert having a conversation about their impressions of each animal. Everyone's going to have a different opinion about what each animal's character is."
Next up, the orchestra welcomes guitarist Matt Withers to perform Castelnuovo-Tedesco's Guitar Concerto.
The work was originally written for and premiered by Andres Segovia. Withers feels that it "displays stunning textures between the orchestra and the soloist, really showcasing the natural beauty of the guitar through the orchestration".
"I'm proud to be returning as a featured soloist with the NCO after performing with them in 2016," he says. "I've performed with many orchestras around Australia and it is certainly a joy to work under the baton of Leonard Weiss and with fellow Canberra musicians at Llewellyn Hall."
Withers will be joined on stage by Callum Henshaw, a PhD student at the ANU School of Music, for Rodrigo's Concierto Madrigal for two guitars and orchestra.
Given both Withers and Henshaw studied with celebrated guitarist and educator Tim Kain, the pair could skip the awkward "getting to know you" phase of rehearsing a double concerto. While never having played together, Henshaw says they were breathing and playing as though controlling different parts of one guitar.
To negotiate the composer's notoriously "unplayable" piece, the two guitarists painstakingly edited their parts, swapping notes and chords here and there, relying on the orchestra to fill out some of the more complex harmonies.
In Rodrigo's concerto, the orchestra is less a force to be opposed by the soloists and more a third wheel, with the orchestral accompaniment often limited to a few instruments. Henshaw compares Rodrigo's use of the orchestra to a painter's pallet, with the composer utilising only the colours necessary to best compliment the intricate guitar parts. Like the Wells piece earlier in the program, here the composer utilises short vignette movements to give multiple perspectives on a central theme.
After lining up the world premiere from Wells and the two guitar concerti, NCO conductor Leonard Weiss went on the hunt for "something meaty for the orchestra to finish the concert program". Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol certainly fits the bill. While the orchestra in the two works with guitar are somewhat subdued and sensitive (it doesn't take much to overpower a classical guitar, after all), here the NCO have a chance to let loose with a work Weiss calls "tremendous fun to play".