Great Concert

April 2, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Sydney’s Great Synagogue celebrated its 134th anniversary with a heritage orchestral concert last night in the presence of Governor Marie Bashir.

Anthony Clarke and Kim Walker allpix: Henry Benjamin

Stevie Whitmont

Stevie Whitmont and her band of organisers managed to fill the downstairs section of the synagogue, with a few spilling to upstairs as the ground floor filled up.

The drawcard was the community based Woollahra Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the youthful Anthony Clarke, with distinguished solo bassoonist, Kim Walker.

They presented a program that satisfied classical purists as well as lovers of lighter orchestral music. The orchestra suffered from a less-than-perfect layout, since it had to accommodate the bimah in its midst. Moreover, small local orchestras such as the Woollahra are typically short of players, especially in the string sections.

Having said that, the sound it produced was, for the most part, sweet and professional. Logically, the program began with an overture, in this case, The Hebrides by Mendelssohn. When it came to a contest between the woodwind/brass departments and the strings to be heard, blowing beat bowing. Balance was always going to be an issue but, luckily, the blowers were remarkably good, so no harm was done.

Innocent clouds by Elena Kats Chernin (I didn’t know the piece previously) turned out to be a spirited tango with some creamy solo work from a soprano saxophone – a seldom heard instrument, more’s the pity.

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence with Governor Marie Bashir

The three well known classical period composers who wrote concertos for bassoon and orchestra were Hummel, Mozart and Weber. The concert seemed centred around the Hummel, possibly intended to be the jewel in the evening’s crown. Beginning like a friendly piece of Mozart, it soon turned into a fiendishly difficult work that took both soloist and orchestra beyond their comfort zones. Soloist Kim Walker, who is a master of the bassoon, needed all her technical skill as well as high capacity lungs to get through this tour de force.

Walker returned after interval to perform what I liked most in the concert: Kol Nidrei Op.47 by Max Bruch. A solo cellist usually plays this piece with the orchestra, but on this occasion Walkers’ bassoon took the cello part. It gave her a chance to linger on notes of rich sadness as her bassoon reached out to the emotions.

Three Jewish Portraits by John Duffy was new to me but I’ll look forward to hearing them again in the future. The “Golden Age of Spanish Jewry” evoked the harmonies and dance rhythms of Spain; “The Shtetl” was beautifully melancholy, with superb violin playing from the leader of the orchestra while the “Rabbi’s Dance” had me wanting to get up and hop about.

The concert dispensed with the programmed Danse Macabre (no great loss, there) and went into Leonard Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes “On the Town”. Here the orchestra let its collective hair down with strong rhythms and cheeky interjections from clarinets and brass.

The Great Synagogue is not an ideal musical venue for seating or acoustics, but it served the greater purpose of the community making fine music in a holy place and everybody feeling good about it.

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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.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.  

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