27 October 2012


Megan said the Saint-Saëns had been used in Babe and I can understand why. We were at the latest performance of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and the program was Berlioz’s Roman carnival overture, Shostakovich’s Cello concerto no.1 op.107 and Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony no.3 op.78 in C-minor. I was particularly interested in attending to hear the organ (the Llewellyn purchased a major electronic concert organ a few years back) but in the end, it was the Shostakovich that I’ll remember. Julian Smiles played the cello solo part with dignity and at times, I thought, some wonderfully slow, pained bowing. Pained is the right approach. This was in the USSR in the era of Stalin and following the Great War, thought to end all wars. You could feel an informed dread of Stalinist threats and disquiet with the price of progress that permeated the middle years of the 20th century. I loved the clearly stated solos, the lines that echoed through the orchestra, the solemnity and intelligence, the horn that was a prominent and responsive partner to the cello, one lovely passage that really struck me of violin counterpoint against oboe melody, democratic dignity in the context of war and threat. This was my favourite piece for the night. Julian Smiles followed with a short piece from Carnival of the animals, accompanied by the heavenly sound of celeste played by Suzanne Powell. Nowhere near as profound, but tonally delightful.

I was despairing of constant coughing in the quiet passages. I wonder why this happens. I very rarely feel the compulsion, but it seems almost inevitable in a hall. Amusingly, it appeared as a rising then falling cacophony between movements at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and in Europe. In the Llewellyn, it was frequent and evident during the quiet passages. Why is this? It’s not a young crowd, but it’s not winter, either. So I was at least pleased with the louder works that muted the coughing. The show opened with Berlioz. No great recollections here, although it was lively and attractive and popular music. The final work was Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony. I was interested in the sound of the organ and initially a little disappointed. The tone was right but it didn’t seem to have the presence of the real thing until some loud chords that boomed over the orchestra. It’s then I thought of the volume of this thing, and also the tuba. Both were used here, and both overwhelmed the orchestra when they upped their volume. To me, the Saint-Saëns appeared a meek Beethoven, with swells and crescendos and classical/romantic cross, but lacking the inevitability and variation and nowhere near as satisfying or involving. I recognised one passage after the organ hits - an attractive passage of floating piano and strings melody - but I found it hard to ignore (and not to be disappointed by) the ghost of Beethoven. As we moved out for interval, it was interesting to hear one woman say this was the best she’d heard, seemingly having attended numerous performances of the work. That’s interesting.

This was another successful CSO presentation. I was educated and entranced by Shostakovich and well satisfied by the others. Our local orchestra does a great job. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra performed Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, Shostakovich’s Cello concerto no.1 op.107 and Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony no.3 Op.78 in C-minor at the Llewellyn Hall. Julian Smiles played cello for the Shostakovich, Amy Johansen played organ for the Saint-Saëns and Nicholas Milton conducted.

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