8 May 2014

Symphony or concerto?

This was another great success for the Canberra Symphony under Nicholas Milton. I wasn't so taken by the first half: Mozart Overture from Marriage of Figaro, a light and recognisable piece to start the night, and Beethoven 4th piano concerto with pianist Clemens Leske. I think I prefer symphonies to concerti: more democratic, more balanced and internally consistent, whereas a concerto, even with a 9' Steinway (which I presume they were using) is still unbalanced between solo instrument and the strength of even smaller orchestra, and essentially more an individualist, even competitive event. Maybe it suits the times. The Beethoven was all long chromatics and weighty left hand melody and the lines felt not so even and not too obviously resolved so this didn't so much appeal to me. Then interval, another wine and a return to Mahler Symphony no.1. The first notes were quiet and I wondered if this was indecisive. Not at all. Phrases were soon appearing, from different instruments, even from trumpets off stage, appearing then decaying. Hints. A passage of threat. Then busy, interacting, layered themes, pulling together for a joyous, outgoing, vibrant country fair. Flutes as birds; strings answering; single note harp tacking; deep slurred notes bowed on bass. Then on through layers of melody, and an explosion of percussion and horns and brass. This first movement was richly layered with a touch of rural idyll. The second movement was a strutting 3/4, a lone horn, into a smoother, seductive waltz, then a return to the strutting 3/4. The fourth movement started with a solo bass playing Frere Jacques (kid you not) then a canon through cellos, violas and the rest, melding in and out with another Yiddish-sounding folk song. Nicholas Milton is flailing; he's an effusive conductor, calling for dynamics that an orchestra of undemonstrative Australians is a bit loath to give him. I reckon he's good for the CSO; they could have a little more abandon. Then into the final movement, perhaps revisiting the first, explosive from the start, then through various rises and falls, of volume and intensity. Big with tubas and standing horns and timpani and brass; swingeing bass lines. I thought I judged the finale, but it came and went and came again. Perhaps for a first time, I followed the symphonic structure with some understanding, but I still don't know why the combinations of complex layers then that odd 3/4 second movement with the sandwiched waltz, then Frere Jacques and the folk tunes, then the complexity and energy of the finish. In such a big space, Mahler could have done with a larger orchestra and extra dynamics, but we loved this nonetheless. Very interesting and attractive and satisfying. The orchestra again did the night justice, Clemens Leske did an good job, the combination of works was impressive, even if I had a clear preference for the Mahler symphony, and Nicholas Milton was ever the fine host and vibrant leader. Congrats to our locals.

The Canberra Symphony Orchestra performed under Nicholas Milton (conductor) at Llewellyn Hall. Clemens Leske (piano) soloed in the concerto. The program was Mozart Overture from Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven Piano concerto no.4 and Mahler Symphony no.1.

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