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26 March 2009

Gill, TQO and Grandison's concerto

Brisbane // Qld // 13.03.2009

Mark Grandison Image: Mark Grandison  

To be honest, the Contempo series of The Queensland Orchestra has always filled me with a combination of rather subdued excitement and anticipated disappointment. Taking place in their Ferry Road Studios, the performances often seem like glorified rehearsals - because of the venue, but also, unfortunately, the quality and emotional content of the playing.

It is a little unsatisfactory that a program made up mostly of Stravinsky's music, written near to a century ago, occupies one of TQO's two Contempo concerts for 2009.

Julian Day, presenting the concert, advises us to hear Stravinsky through the ears of post-minimalism: he promises it will sound 'clean, fresh and new'. Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano and Winds instead sounds a little dull, stale and calculated - not because of the music itself, which is brilliantly interwoven Bach and jazz, but the performance, which could definitely do with more oomph. The grandeur of the horn opening feels restrained; an air of tension floats through the orchestra and with unsubtlety quells any enjoyment the musicians could be trying to express. The pianist performs with fluid body motion but a dry tone. Even Gill lacks a little of his usual vigour.

Nevertheless this is great music, and the players - flinchingly - march on with an air of controlled cacophony, and at times there is a lovely coherency running through the winds. The final Allegro charges headstrong to its conclusion, though its boldness seems a little lost in functionality. The musicians smile politely for the applause - the first smiles we have seen from them all evening.

Stravinsky's Symphony in C, written in the late 1930s, is less disappointing. The full orchestra now take the stage, filling the assemblage of awkwardly empty seats. And while their faces are still unnecessarily stern, the strings at least play with a generous and flowing tone. A few of the younger members of the orchestra even brave moments of enthusiasm!

There is such character in Stravinsky's music. Little string quartets pop out of the mix at points and each instrument takes on its distinctive face. Gloomy baselines hang under bright melodies - it's like wearing daggy underpants on an enjoyable date and worrying about them the whole time. This element of clumsiness or discomfort is pressed bosoms first against a solid wall of fun. The final Largo has a rough grace that builds through the instrumentation in a way only the very greatest of composers could manage, to a gorgeous chorale (rather rudely punctuated by brass breaths in this instance). The strings, unable to let the winds end such a work, steal their final chord.

The last work on the program is the world premiere of Mark Grandison's Violin Concerto. Julian Day had mixed it up by interviewing Grandison before the second Stravinsky work, perhaps to keep us firmly glued to our seats in the interval-free ninety-minute program. And fair enough - the description the composer gives leaves my mouth watering: two simultaneous monologues, the violin feeling out its melody the way an Indian sitar player feels out a raga, over a mechanical orchestral cadenza. Themes developing down separate paths, and eventually meeting - egging each other on, racing and intertwining. If such things were to be realised in the music, this could be quite a new discovery.

As it was, I could hear most of what Grandison promised, although it was weakened by violinist Shaun Lee-Chen - the much celebrated winner of ABC's Young Performer Award 2007 - being totally overwhelmed by the unrealistic expectations of the score and the weight of the orchestra. Surely the part was too difficult, because it looked it. His performance felt stunted by his concern for the notes, less courageous, independent soldier than half-heartedly protesting child.

The music was rich and satisfying for the most part, and made for involving and easy listening. With interesting and engaging melodies, playful rhythms and even a bit of something special - a uniquely crafted spirit perhaps - this is the kind of thing I'd like to stick in the CD player at the end of an emotional day and turn up loud. My criticism of the writing, besides an excess of unforgiving difficulty, is that at times it seems a tad busy, as though the composer had found too many things he liked and tried to stick them all in at once.

It is a hard thing to criticise a performance that you would so like to encourage, because the last thing I want to convey in this review is that The Queensland Orchestra has got it wrong even putting on Contempo concerts. These are attractive concerts, and they bring a new and different audience to TQO - and a generous crowd to boot (I've been to several Contempo concerts that have sold out). The musicians are the ones who are holding the orchestra back in this instance, which is disheartening and very disappointing. Truly passionate players of music like nothing better than to push themselves to the next musical challenge, and this is how I want to hear our orchestra approaching today's most interesting and excellent music. I want to see enjoyment.

Event details

Richard Gill conducts Stravinsky
The Queensland Orchestra
Friday 13 March
Ferry Road Studios, Brisbane, Qld
Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds; Symphony in C
Grandison: Violin Concerto D (world premiere)
Richard Gill (conductor), Dizhou Zhao (piano), Shaun Lee-Chen (violin).

Further links

Mark Grandison (www.amcoz.com.au/composers/composer.asp?id=219)
The Queensland Orchestra (www.thequeenslandorchestra.com.au)

Subjects discussed by this article:

Hannah Reardon-Smith is a flautist, radio announcer, writer, singer, teacher, arts administrator and vegetarian. After graduating from her BMus at the Qld Con in 2008, she's keeping herself busy by saying yes to everything - completing a mentorshop through Youth Arts Queensland under Janet McKay, getting an ensemble by the name of Musicians Against Complacency off the ground, singing with The Australian Voices, freelancing as a soloist, announcing on 4MBS Classic FM, administrating for Southern Cross Soloists and Clocked Out and giving a music class at the Mater Hospital Special School. Hannah was the AYO Music Presentation Fellow in 2008.


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Did anyone else just hear the live broadcast on ABC FM of the THE PASTICHE ACCORDING TO ST RICHARD?