Uncommon music for the common man…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing
Calling its program ‘Symphony for the Common Man’, the SSO presented music by Ford, Rachmaninov and Copeland in an interesting mix of Australian, Russian and American composers.
Making a most uncommon opening to the concert was a piece by Australian composer Andrew Ford. He also gave the pre-concert talk, showing his skill as a broadcaster and his vast knowledge of music. His brief orchestral piece, Headlong, was certainly fresh, if challenging to the ear. It had been commissioned for the SSO’s 75th anniversary and set out to show off the orchestra, wholly and severally. Ford had prepared us for a grand, everybody in, A major final chord, followed by a ‘disintegration’ of sound as twittering fragments flew away. This was a wonderful effect and I would have like more of it earlier. However, as Ford told his pre-concert audience, the piece did not repeat anywhere, so I was left lamenting.
Only two weeks ago we were treated to Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto, and last night we got the other bookend: the fourth. It is only the least popular of the four because of the towering presence of the second and third; and they pull the exuberant and youthful first along with them. As a stand-alone, the fourth is a rich, powerful and technically demanding concerto with all the hallmarks of Rachmaninov in his maturity. It is worthy of a higher ranking.
Unfortunately for the composer, after an interrupted and long gestation period which finished in America, the fourth was not initially well received. That drove the self-doubting Rachmaninov to make drastic cuts. Somebody will probably put it all back together again (if they haven’t done so already) and play the ‘original’ version. But for this performance we got the 25-minute coupe model.
It has been said that the beginning of the fourth could be taken for the continuation of the third, with its soaring, romantic collaboration between orchestra and piano, but it soon establishes its own, unique credentials. While not having the memorable tunes of the other concertos, the fourth nevertheless captures the listener with is velvety harmonies and rhythmic surprises.
The piano soloist, Simon Tedeschi, who has settled back in Australia after proving himself on the international circuit, was received with affection and enthusiasm by the largely youthful Opera House audience.
While his Rachmaninov fourth was played with speed and precision, it was too often drowned out by the orchestra. If the interpretation was to be lighter weight than usual – and this may have been a praiseworthy way of presenting it – then the orchestra and piano balance should have been adjusted during rehearsal. Having said that, the slow movement, where soloist and orchestra do not compete, was a revelation. Tedeschi’s sensitive statements and the sweeping orchestral responses were simply superb.
As the title suggested, this concert was really focused on Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony which, in turn, spends most of its fourth movement stating and restating Copeland’s famous Fanfare for the Common Man. The fanfare has become Copland’s most popular composition, and is used in a variety of situations as a rallying call to excellence.
The third symphony could be said to be a musical encapsulation of the USA- without becoming commercial and corny. It sweeps across a massive canvas, employing a stage-filling orchestra with eight bull-fiddles, two harps, a full complement of percussion, piano, celesta, enough brass to crack ceilings and a full house of strings. And Copeland does not hesitate to fire all the guns at once when he feels like it. Conductor, Benjamin Northey, extracted a volume of sound I didn’t think possible from the SSO.
Even though the symphony is grand is every respect, it occasionally lapses into ‘fingernails down the blackboard’ irritants, especially from the violins. This may not be the orchestra’s fault; Copland may have intended it that way, but it is discomforting.
However, gripes aside, this was a stellar performance of a stellar symphony. Northey led his troops with precision and a great sense of climax. The last page of the symphony simply exploded – to the great delight of a clapping and whooping audience.
SSO Opera House concert 15 March 2017
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.