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24 June 2009

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra: Elgar's Enigma - and so much more

Adelaide // SA // 19.06.2009

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra: Elgar's Enigma - and so much more

Don’t let the title of this concert ('Elgar's Enigma') mislead you – yes, Elgar’s Enigma Variations did feature in the program for this Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Master Series concert, but so did two other works whose reception showed that (despite being totally different to Elgar) they were just as deserving of having the concert named after them. Elgar no doubt got the usual subscribers through the door, but the first half of the program comprised of not one, but two Australian works, both of which were given firmly convincing performances.

Carl Vine created his own enigma with a program note that left me a little unclear as to how to listen to his Symphony No. 7, which opened the concert. After announcing his aversion to program music, he proceeded to discuss the music’s extra-musical meaning – philosophising sardonically about the violence and despair of everyday life – before concluding by emphasising the work’s abstract nature.

After reading that, the Symphony No. 7 came across to me as a dark, cynical, even bitter piece – but somehow also full of life and enthralling to listen to. For all Vine’s desire to remain abstract, the music gave the impression of earnestly trying to communicate something, with expressive melodies continuously pouring out from all corners of the orchestra, the music itself sounding full to bursting with – well, if it’s music, who can say? Half-familiar harmonic fragments or textures (which are mostly inescapable when writing orchestral music today) kept appearing, but expectations arising from these were constantly confounded as the music was driven onwards with vigour by an assured Arvo Volmer, who conducted the premiere of this symphony in Perth last year.

We were taken through six contrasting ‘scenes,’ finally reaching a climactic concluding passage growing from a dry, military drumming pattern into a full-blown orchestral nightmare, with a sickening cry of disgust from the brass just before the forceful conclusion.

After such open violence and pessimism, breaking into rapturous applause always seems to me wildly inappropriate. In the end, it comes down to how you choose to listen to the music. If music is simply abstract and quite disconnected from everyday reality, then, sure, you can feel the pain and anguish the music is expressing at the time, but this is ultimately overruled by the exhilaration at the music’s external presentation, and the knowledge that it was, after all, just music. And so you clap and cheer and say what a wonderful piece it was.

I thought it was a great, well-crafted piece of music, but more important than this for me was the intensity of its hope, despair and ultimate frustration. But perhaps I had placed too much importance on the program note? At any rate, there stood Carl Vine out the front, smiling politely and bowing, and around me warm applause and cheerful expressions. A gentleman behind me started explaining how he had discerned in the music a complex story of birds and crocodiles…

Matthew Hindson’s The Rave and the Nightingale followed, with the Australian String Quartet joining the string section of the ASO on stage. This work, written several years ago now, opens with an extended direct quotation from Schubert’s 15th string quartet, but after several minutes the orchestra enters, as though giving the quartet permission to lash out and take the musical material to new places. This they do with increasing invention, both lyrical (the ‘nightingale’) and aggressive (the ‘rave’), the transitions from one to the other smoothed by the organically composed dialogue between quartet and orchestra. This stylistic shifting is not as clear-cut as in other works, and the changes come across as well integrated into the piece – there are no ‘cheap shots’ of simply putting the material into a contemporary style and leaving it; it is all carefully developed and shaped.

Mentioning ‘stylistic cross-over’ and ‘popular influences’ seems inescapable when discussing a work like this, and these concepts themselves often generate strong opinions amongst people even before the music is heard. Thankfully, the musicians didn’t stop to worry about such things, but just played, freely giving the music all the energy and commitment it needs to work. This was particularly true of the radiant ASQ, led by the spirited Sophie Rowell. The orchestra showed it wasn’t holding back either, and so the potentially cringe-worthy (for some) foot-stomping accelerando to the end actually worked spectacularly. As a result of this commitment from the players, Hindson’s piece stood up alongside Vine’s without looking trite or flippant.

After interval, it was over to Edward Elgar, starting with his Introduction and Allegro. Suddenly the string sound seemed to open right up, making it clear to all how rich strings can sound when playing the music they were designed for. But this is not to take away from Hindson’s work – in fact, I found his balance between quartet and orchestra somewhat more effective, at least in these acoustics, than Elgar’s.

The Enigma Variations then followed, in which Arvo Volmer stayed close to Elgar’s marked tempos where others have a tendency to wallow unnecessarily – this resulted in a performance which kept up the life from the previous pieces in the program. The only disappointment here was the fact that the ensemble simply wasn’t as tight as it had been in the other works, as though the players weren’t quite as prepared as they could’ve been.

The audience went home content after a rare orchestral encore (Nimrod, of course), but with the two Australian works on the program staying in their minds (or so I hope) – the spirited performances given here showing their quality and demonstrating that they can stand up alongside something like Enigma Variations as much more than mere ‘attachments.’

Event Details

Elgar’s Enigma (Master Series concert 5)
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra & Australian String Quartet
Arvo Volmer – conductor
Carl Vine: Symphony No. 7
Matthew Hindson: The Rave and the Nightingale
Edward Elgar: Introduction and Allegro; Enigma Variations
Friday 19 June 2009
Adelaide Town Hall, Adelaide, SA

Further links

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (www.aso.com.au/)

Subjects discussed by this article:

This David Lang is not the New York-based composer (yet), but he is studying composition at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. He also finds the time to play trumpet and piano, conduct, sing, volunteer on radio, read, write... and occasionally even attend musical events like this one!


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