Picturesque, to say the least: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

July 19, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Last night’s Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s APT Master Series concert was all about creating dramatic sound pictures, some clearly subtitled, some borrowed form the Russian Orthodox Church and the rest a challenging kaleidoscope from a contemporary American female composer.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Appropriately, the concert began with an overture, the Russian Easter Festival on Liturgical Themes, Op.36 byRimsky-Korsakov, which draws on material from the chants of the obikhod – part of the moving and spectacularRussian Orthodox Easter service. But rather than being serious and sombre, it encouraged Rimski-Korsakov towards exuberance, freed up even further because he was not a follower of any organised religion.

Although it is 12 years since the SSO performed the overture, it remains a global concert favourite, largely because Rimsky-Korsakov was a master orchestrator capable of evoking colour, irrespective of musical content. In this case there was plenty of content. The overture also served to establish the American conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero, as being out of the top draw, with his joyous, emotional approach to music making. As well as several part-time prestigious posts, he has been music director of the Nashville Symphony since 2009. I would rank him among the best visiting conductors we’ve had for the SSO.

Next came Jennifer Higdon’s violin concerto, an Australian premier, although it has been around since 2009. Granted, she is a celebrated and often performed American composer, but that doesn’t make her violin concerto easy listening – especially on first acquaintance. However, it works far better in live performance than it does as the recordings I’ve heard. This has a lot to do with how the soloist handles what is a fearsome workload. 29-year-old American violinist Benjamin Beilman (who looks nearer 16) was up to the task, with very few breathers during the 32 minutes duration. His cadenza towards the end of the first movement was an astonishing technical feat. It should also be said that, when the score allowed it, Beilman coaxed a delightfully rich tone from his ‘Englaman ‘ Stradivarius.

Giancarlo Guerrero

The concerto begins with a collection of odd squeaks from the soloist and orchestra, almost as though they are still tuning up, until the violin slips into gear and enters like an unhurried cat to send the mice scurrying away. The first movement is full of surprises, from head-on percussion crashes to single notes only just breaking the silence. There is little repeated material, which gives the concerto the quality of a journey through an ever-changing landscape rather than the building of a musical shape with some symmetry.

My enthusiasm grew as the second movement unfolded, with the soloist soaring above complex but satisfying harmonies from the orchestra, sometimes recalling Vaughn Williams, but less tonally. To me, it was the heart of the concerto and could stand alone as a concert piece.

The third movement is best explained by Higdon herself: “Concertos throughout history have always allowed the soloist to delight the audience with feats of great virtuosity, and when a composer is confronted with a real gift in the soloist’s ability to do so, well, it would be foolhardy not to allow that dream to become a reality.”

This was no understatement. Beilman hardly had a hemidemisemiquaver rest in the third movement, titled ‘Fly Forward’, as he took

Benjamin Beilman

on, with great virtuosity, a frantic assignment. It brought the concerto to an exciting close and, although I had a preconceived judgement that I wouldn’t like it, I’m looking forward to its next performance – which may be some time away.

Modest Mussorgsky’sPictures at an Exhibitioncomprised the major work of the concert. It was conceived as a lengthy piano solo, then transcribed by Maurice Ravel (and quite s few others, including Vladimir Ashkenazy) for orchestra, where it has enjoyed unrelenting popularity. Nowadays, it has headed back towards its roots and is often heard as a centrepiece piano solo.

Picturesis unashamedly program music – a collection of paintings expressed in sound and divided by a promenade theme to signal moving through the art gallery of Viktor Hartmann’s works. The SSO performance illustrated Ravel’s genius for orchestration – some say unsurpassed – and provided a luscious palette for the orchestra to work with. This gave rise to some inspired playing, grandly facilitated by Giancarlo Guerrero who went close to miming the music as he hunched up like the gnome, walked on chicken legs and, with high architectural sweeps, built the great gate at Kiev that must rank as one of the supreme orchestral climaxes of the repertoire.

SSO Opera House concert 18 July 2018

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.

Comments

2 Responses to “Picturesque, to say the least: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Will Darcy says:

    Regrettably, I was made to descend on this ‘critical’ dross (and one by a nobody whose self important and desire to jump into the aristocratic fruit bowl name sounds more like a company of solicitors than an actual human being!) after I couldn’t find an online review by either the light years away from this guff SMH’s Peter McCallum or The Australian’s Murray Black!

    A basically vacuous and pretentious music review (while I too, was at this concert!) by a typical upstart dilettante and failed writer(as testified to by the ‘indicative of low self esteem’ credibility that FBM inc. provides in his ‘resume’, as well as his self aggrandizing photograph!)with no real music knowledge given his claim that he’s an “accomplished pianist”, while don’t insult my intelligence and critical acumen by serving me middle class anesthetizing garbage that’s not even worthy of ‘criticism’ in a local rag!

    Yes, if you can’t do better than that FBM, get the hell out of the business!

    • Fraser Beath McEwing says:

      Ah Will Darcy,
      If I should take your advice and retire from classical music reviewing, then you should take mine and retire from trying to write. Your command of English is atrocious.
      There is nothing I like more than a spirited debate on music. I wish you’d concentrated on that in your tirade instead of wasting all those badly written sentences to dump on me. I’ve been a journalist for probably longer than you’ve been on this earth and your type of outburst doesn’t even move my needle. In fact, thank you for a good laugh.
      If you were at the concert I reviewed, you would have been given a booklet outlining the 2019 SSO season. An excerpt from one of my reviews was quoted on page 38. On other pages there were quotes from leading reviewers who write for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and Limelight. That’s where I stand among reviewers. Where do you stand, and in what company?
      Fraser Beath McEwing

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