17 May 2009

Western Cultural Icon live

It was the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Gala last night and Megan and I got early tickets and close seats. I‘d expected something special, but was nowhere near ready for 300 performers and Beethoven’s Ninth. Reading in preparation, I realised just how central it is to modern European culture, so much so it’s taken as the anthem for the EU. And it’s so filled with quotes that it’s locked into our consciousness.

I was dumbfounded. Powerful, passionate, intense, moody, emotionally dense and overwhelming. I spoke to several people who talked of tears in their eyes or goose-pimples. Certainly, it’s something different and new to hear it live, with that upwelling of 300 voices, or counterpoint of bassoons against cellos and basses, or that renowned horn section, or those overwhelming orchestral hits. It’s the length of a CD (in an apocryphal story, the reason CDs are 74mins in length), but the time just flew. Orchestral tuning intro, then full-on orchestra in flight and volume, then the oddly placed scherzo cum march of the second movement. It all seemed so well played, with comfortable timing and harmonies sitting sweetly with good intonation. Then the third, pensive movement. I felt slightly uncomfortable here; the orchestra felt just a little wary. But then the massive fourth movement, with its restatements of themes, again those presto bass lines that floored me, the SATB frontline (perhaps a little unbalanced, although not unlike the version I have at home) and that massive SATB choir in echo. I was head back, eyes closed, stunned by the power and the ecstatic passages of melody passed around the orchestra, horns or violins or brass or that mediaeval-sounding pair of bassoons that sat upright behind the violas, in front of the massed rows of female SAs and male TBs. I most experience music with my eyes close, but I had a great view of the bassists, and I marvelled at some of the phrases. Classical/jazz crossovers Gareth Hill and Leigh Miller were in bass seats 2 and 3 following Max McBride. And along with many others in the audience, I had mates in the choir: five women I had sung with in Healthy Voices, the Department of Health Choir: Annette Quay, Jill Buckley-Smith, Janet Wardman, Julie Carmody and Catherine Ryan. I caught my singing mates after the show, and they were similarly excited and reported big emotional responses from this most perfect of classical/romantic-cusp statements. BTW, the conductor was Nicholas Milton, the vocal soloists were from Opera Australia and the choir was the Canberra Combined Choir.

But the Ninth was not all. The night included a more important performance before the interval: Australian music and world premiere. This was orchestral selections from Richard Meale's 1986 opera, Voss, based on the Patrick White novel. There were no voices here, so none of David Malouf’s libretto, but there were impressionistic images of desert and animals that seemed eerily correct to my ears (and were mentioned to me by others without prompting), but this developed to a richly volumed end which was presumably the espressionist statement of the doomed Voss expedition. But it was still more restrained than the bombastic Beethoven. I felt the orchestra struggled more with this one. I guess the harmonies were more challenging and the tunes wouldn’t have been anywhere near as ingrained as the Ninth.

But I cavil, for this is our poorly funded, part-time orchestra that has to get by with part-funded rehearsals. They do an excellent job, doubly so given the circumstances, and this was a fabulous night and will be a very special memory.

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