A riddle in the middle: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

February 14, 2019 by Fraser McEwing
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The first concert in the SSO Masters Series for 2019 (now sponsored by upmarket travel company Abercrombie & Kent) presented significant works by Janacek and Bartok, book-ending the Australian premiere of a piece by Steve Reich that had been co-commissioned by several orchestras, including the SSO.

David Robertson and the SSO Photo: Ken Butti

While the Janacek and Bartok works were relatively familiar, the Reich piece was hot off the press, having been composed only last year.

One of the most important Czech composers, Leos Janacek (1854 – 1928) made his name in opera before his purely orchestral works took foothold late in his career. The concert opened with Taras Bulba, a rhapsody for orchestra based on Nikolai Gogol’s Russian literary classic. Its three movements depict the deaths of sons Andrei, Ostia and father, Taras Bulba. However, there is plenty of action before the death scenes, involving love affairs and battles. Thus, the music is variously tender, grand and contemplative. Janacek was a master orchestrator, on this occasion calling for large forces including two harps, eight bull fiddles, tubular bells and some growling from the Opera House organ which had been fuelled up for a brief appearance.

From a gentle opening, the SSO blossomed this work into a convincing depiction of drama, violence and sadness with a variety of tonal colours, especially from the clarinets and brass. Although this piece was not written to directly accompany anything visual, it had a lot in common with film music as it effortlessly took the listener through vivid changes of scenery.

Next came the much-anticipated premiere of Steve Reich’s, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra. Reich is an American composer of avant-garde music and is credited with having influenced many of his minimalist peers, including Philip Glass. Reich’s compositions use phasing, where a few bars are repeated almost ad nauseum, but slowly morph into something new. Learned commentators have named Reich as a pivotal composer in the history of music and arguably America’s greatest living composer – now aged 82.

Twenty players comprised the ‘ensemble’, made up of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, percussion, lidless grand pianos, some strings and an electric bass which acted like a sound chassis with long, embracing notes. The ‘orchestra’ got the rest of the strings, (without basses) and four horns. David Robertson raised his baton and off they went on a tipsy mechanical journey, seemingly in danger of falling into chaos by getting out of sync or running out of puff. But it all held together – for 20 minutes – and judging by enthusiastic applause this was a popular premiere. One member of the audience I spoke to said she liked the hypnotic effect.

My opinion? I appreciated the mechanism but it didn’t stir my emotions. Having said that, I’m right behind the SSO’s undeclared intention of interleaving the classics with a few challenging and occasionally outrageous works.

Fraser Beath McEwing

After interval, tradition returned for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. As the name implies, it doesn’t feature soloists, but rather it brackets pairs or sections of instruments which mount a counter-offensive for a while; not that the device is obvious. The overall impression is of a five-movement symphony with snatches of Tchaikovsky and Mahler – which might make me as pretentious as a wine commentator talking about notes of ripe blackberries or a hint of a sweaty saddle. It is in the ear of the listener, although Bartok’s lifelong study of folk music throws up some familiar tunes here and there. He also takes a wonderfully nasty swipe at Shostakovich whose music was given preference over his for a radio broadcast, and apparently stuck in his gullet.

Written two years before his death in 1945, the Concerto for Orchestra has endured as Bartok’s most popular large-scale work. It is tonally accessible (not always typical of Bartok) and seems to cover all the emotional genres. It certainly brought the best out of the SSO and a sometimes-airborne David Robertson. The strings, as usual, played with precision and passion but again I was lifted by the clarinet and brass playing, especially in the big statements towards the end of the final movement (pesante-presto). Here was get-up-and-cheer stuff which sent the Opera House audience into the night feeling inspired – and hopefully no longer hypnotised.

SSO Opera House concert 13 February 2019

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on www.frasersblography.com 

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