Four out of six were made in Australia…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

October 19, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The SSO’s Emirates Metro Series chose the theme of fire for its Opera House concert last night. And fiery it was – mostly. Australian composer Brett Dean conducted his own Fire Music while Australian pianist, Piers Lane, had to fire up to get into the ring with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor leaving Sibelius to represent Finland with six minutes of Scene with Cranes Op 44 No2.

Piers Lane

The Sibelius choice looked like a filler to open the program but turned out to be my favorite. It must rank as the quietest piece ever written for a symphony orchestra – although the undisputed quietest piece of music ever written, full stop, is Four minutes and Thirty-Three seconds for piano by John Cage in which there is no sound at all. Brett Dean seemed to be waving his baton without the orchestra taking any notice, but in fact the strings had begun this gentle, solemn piece which had been written as incidental music for a play by Arvid Jarnefelt called Kuolema (death). As you might expect, there were no grand blocks of forte strings overarched by brass blasts that typify Sibelius, but instead, a harmony of barely breathing strings with a pair of drifting clarinets to represent the two cranes that break from the airborne flock to bestow parenthood on the lovers. Something similar happened to Sibelius two days before he died. He was walking near his country house when two cranes broke from the passing flock and circled back over him. He took this as a blessing.

I could have done with a lot more of Cranes when Dean slid into his Fire Music without a pause. Now here was a contrast. I can feel some sympathy for contemporary composers trying to write pieces for orchestra that will resonate as original. On the face of it, there seems nowhere else to go, that every sequence of notes and instruments has been picked over many times. I’m only guessing that this might have been Brett Dean’s dilemma because he rounded up an army with such a variety of instruments that a unique result was assured.

Not only was there a whopper conventional orchestra on stage (bull fiddle count: eight, plus multiples of many other instruments) but included an electric guitar, four collections of percussion, a recording of a jail door clanging shut, harp, piano, and a MIDI keyboard. There’s more. An amplified string quartet sat halfway up the choir stalls while studded around the back of the concert hall were other groups of instruments. There was also a thunder sheet which gave a wonderful reproduction of the real thing. The surround-sound effect was intended to create the feeling of being trapped by the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires in Victoria in 2009 – which inspired the piece.

The audience was assaulted, frightened, inspired and squealed at for 40 minutes – which may have been a tad too long, but the piece had been commissioned by two different parties, one of which was the Australian ballet and probably needed to be substantial to fulfil the obligation. In many ways, Fire Music was an enjoyable experience. It skilfully merged sound effects with music and it helps to establish Brett Dean as a major force in Australian contemporary composing. I didn’t love it enough to rush out and buy the CD, but even if I did I wouldn’t be able to reproduce the musical pot shots from around the room. This is a live performance only piece of music.

The furniture removers then got to work to set up the Steinway model D in front of a substantial but not overstuffed orchestra. Piers Lane’s appearance on stage set off an avalanche of applause and cheers. Australia loves this man with his eruption of ringleted hair and humorous socks. He is a world piano celebrity as a performer, organiser and raconteur.

Having said that, was Rachmaninov’s third a good choice for him? Almost every great and trying-to-be-great pianist in the world plays and has recorded this concerto. It is also a favourite at piano competitions where young flying fingers and steel wrists can make it sound easy – when it is one of the most difficult piano concertos to play.  Horowitz recorded it at least three times and as he grew older the athleticism morphed into respect.

I don’t say that Piers Lane has reached that stage quite yet. In some passages, he displayed sizzling technique and he had the power to blast through the orchestral opposition when needed, but other passages were muddy and he often seemed in a hurry to get them out of the way. He came across as being too taken up with correct notes to indulge the romance I’m sure he felt. I found myself being nervous for him in case he came unstuck – which he didn’t.

Anyway, the audience loved it and the orchestra applauded him too, so you’d have to rate that as a damn good performance.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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