Andrew had nowhere to sit, so he stood up and played: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

December 8, 2022 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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When Andrew Haveron walked on stage at the Sydney Opera House concert hall last night carrying his violin, his usual chair was occupied by associate concertmaster Harry Bennetts.

Andrew Haveron playing Britten’s violin concerto            Photo: Jay Patel

However, this was no musical coup de gras. Andrew was not appearing as concertmaster but as a soloist in Benjamin Britten’s violin concerto. And a mighty performance it was. More of that later.

First, to the Fifty Fanfares Commission, this time presenting Ocean Planet by Paul Stanhope.

In contrast to the previous Fanfare composer, fledgling Ella Macens, 53-year-old Stanhope is an established Australian composer (another from the Sydney Con) with a string of awards and performances to his name. He studied under Andrew Ford, Andrew Schultz and Peter Sculthorpe. Moreover, any composer who puts his hand up to write a piccolo concerto deserves special attention.

His Ocean Planet helped make this a concert dominated by planets. Stanhope fitted his seven planet movements into 12 minutes, whereas Holst needed 51 minutes to dispatch his. Stanhope took full advantage of the Holst-size orchestra pumped up with lots of extra instruments – and with an odd bull fiddle count of five. The seven Ocean Planet pictures were played without a break and came across as a stimulating, often startling work – but sometimes resembling sound effects rather than music. Nevertheless, it has added another work to the growing list of world-class Australian compositions.

I applaud the opportunities given by the SSO organisers to members of the orchestra to appear as soloists from time to time. As well as Andrew Haveron, we’ve been given soloist performances from trumpeter David Elton and oboist Diana Doherty this year.

While Haveron frequently appears in ensemble work, sometimes leading a small orchestra, being soloist in the Britten was quite a different animal. The concerto is a restless, sometimes exotic piece, swerving every now and again into atonality but still remaining accessible and always exciting. It calls for a fiery, exceptional technique as well as romantic passion.

Written in 1939, the concerto was revised and made a fresh start in 1951.

It opens with a timpani beat, a little reminiscent of the Beethoven violin concerto. That rhythm pops in and out through the Britten. There are references to other composers’ styles and a mixing of established forms that is typical of Britten’s music. In other words, there is something to love and something to loathe for everyone.

Remembering Andrew Haveron’s brief solos as concertmaster in otherwise full orchestral pieces did not prepare me for what he could do with one of the most difficult violin concertos in the repertoire. Away from his concertmaster’s chair, he proved to be a different musician, demonstrating an ability to project his solo sound with great power and emotion. There were many passages, like the cadenza at the end of the first movement, that were simply breathtaking.

Although Holst’s Planets was billed as the main attraction, my vote went to Haveron’s Britten. It sizzled.

Fraser Beath McEwing

The Planets did not have a happy childhood but grew into one of the most played and loved orchestral pieces. In seven movements, it tries to depict planets and their astrological influence – but is hardly a musical guide to astrology. Wisely, Holst did not include Earth in his line-up, with its predilection for turmoil, folly and now climate change.

The Planets premiered in London in 1918 and was conducted by Holst’s friend Adrian Boult, but it was not the work’s best performance, being grossly under-rehearsed, with the final movement’s wordless female chorus comprising a hasty assembly of Holst’s female students.

Incidentally, I remember ABC announcer Christopher Lawrence saying, ‘since the choir doesn’t have to sing any words, they only get half pay.’ I doubt our choristers were paid at all, although they did get the last say as they faded to nothing, leaving the concert hall in total silence.

Although it’s illogical, I always feel more comfortable with an English conductor for English music. And I have an extra affinity with conductors with plenty of clicks on the clock. Seventy-three-year-old, UK-born James Judd, therefore, scored on both counts – although I’d have to say he moves like a much younger man. His conducting history includes stints with some of the world’s finest orchestras, including some in the youth category, which, to me, can rival their elders for quality.

Judd was clearly in his element with The Planets. He upped the tempo (sometimes to the discomfort of the horns) in a way that created a euphoric feeling of abandon, beginning with a furious reading of Mars, the bringer of war that stirred the soul and then balmed it with Venus, the bringer of peace. Each movement was given a unique treatment so that it never sounded hackneyed. In true British style, Judd always knew where the emotional brink was and let us peer over it but never fall in.

SSO Sydney Opera House concert 7 December 2022

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