18 December 2009
ANAM: Ligeti, Haydn, Dean
Melbourne // VIC // 21.11.2009
The line of people trying to attend this ANAM concert at the South Melbourne Town Hall extended out the door and into a hot and rain-soaked Melbourne evening. Standing-room-only concerts can be a rare thing, and it is perhaps testament to the continued fortitude and spirit shown by ANAM that a warm, anticipatory and celebratory atmosphere permeated the audience. Alongside György Ligeti's Cello Concerto and Joseph Haydn's Symphony no. 82, this concert also witnessed the eagerly awaited Australian premiere of Brett Dean's Grawemeyer Award-winning violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing.
A last-minute program reshuffle saw Ligeti's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1966) open the evening. Ligeti's work is in two continuous movements, and it is one of introverted virtuosity, expressed through extreme subtleties of timbral colour and dynamic nuance. Among some of the shimmering textural approaches Ligeti is known for, the Cello Concerto begins and contains sections at the limits of audibility. The role of the cello in this work is like that of a coloured thread, weaving intricately through the surrounding instrumental fabric.
As the fidgeting and settling of the audience subsided, the cello of soloist Sharon Draper imperceptibly made its presence felt. Draper moved in and out of the surrounding instrumental textures with ease, revealing a secure and balanced tone colour. Ligeti's concerto opens up like a flower, and Draper met the exposed high harmonics near the end of the first movement with skill and a sustained musicality.
The orchestral playing was generally of a high standard also. Brett Dean as conductor helped give the luminosity of tone colours adequate space to breathe. Swelling dynamics, tremolos, harp attacks coinciding with sustained string entries and the general transferral of tone colours were handled with the necessary energised restraint and control.
While the South Melbourne Town Hall is a beautiful concert space, the real issues with the performance of the cello concerto had to do with the noise of rain falling on the roof, audience members flapping their programs to fan themselves because of the heat, and the difficulty in actually seeing the musicians if you were seated half-way back in the audience.
Haydn's Symphony No.82 (1786) was given a lively rendition, complete with standing string players and an open, vigorous sound. The orchestra generally moved as one organism, at times flamboyantly exaggerating dynamics and colouristic contrasts in the music. Despite a high level of ensemble precision, there were moments in the first movement where intonation slipped slightly in the strings before control was regained. However, first violin and director Paul Wright did a fine overall job in shaping the energy of the performance. There was a seemingly deliberate false end flourish to the work with bows poised in the air which started the audience clapping - before the true finish came shortly after. The orchestra worked hard at engaging the audience in this performance and the sustained applause they received was certainly well deserved.
Following the interval was Brett Dean's The Lost Art of Letter Writing (2006). Dean's inspiration behind the work was drawn from a concern of declining literacy levels and a diminished power of written communication in a digitised age. Dean frames the work as a response to these concerns through four movements, based on 19th-century letters. These letters range from private love letter to public manifesto. The first movement 'Hamburg 1854' references socially forbidden love in a letter from Johannes Brahms to Clara Schumann, the second movement 'The Hague 1882' takes it cue from a line by Vincent Van Gogh, reflecting upon nature as being a true companion through life's troubles, the third movement 'Vienna 1886' is based upon a frank outpouring from Hugo Wolf to a friend, while the fourth movement 'Jerilderie 1879' is Ned Kelly's famous letter protesting innocence and a desire for justice.
Dean's concerto is an energy juggernaut, full of complex amalgams of shifting orchestral texture, fantastic crescendos, and, in the outer movements at least, a relentless rhythmic drive. The role of the violin through all this is alternately both one of author and recipient of the letters, and Dean draws heavily upon the expressive capabilities of the solo violin to express the emotional outpourings. Abrasive double stops, slides, harmonics and general fingerboard gymnastics are all de rigueur. The moments of stillness and tenderness rarely last long before activity, density and momentum take over.
Young violinist Kristian Winther was more than up to the challenge of the concerto, revealing a remarkably centered yet passionate delivery. Winther's technical control and stamina were impressive, particularly once settled into the work past the first movement. Dean as conductor, held the reins mostly in check. However, at times the orchestral dynamic and intensity threatened to overpower the violin, and Dean seemed to motion regularly to the orchestra to contain the dynamic balance.
The entire concerto is swimming in constantly present and evolving textures. While the overall effect is one of mood rather than clear narrative, the final movement propels itself forward through passages of considerable virtuosity and reflects a sense of the impending catastrophe inherent in Kelly's Jerilderie document. The dramatic arc of the concerto ends with a powerful climax.
The audience response to Dean's concerto was overwhelmingly positive with the performance receiving a standing ovation. Dean relinquishes his position with ANAM next year and the loud applause resonating through the town hall seemed equally directed at his impact on the institution as its excellent musicians and a night of fine music making.
Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM)
Music by Ligeti, Haydn and Brett Dean
21 November 1009
South Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, VIC
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Anthony Lyons is a Melbourne-based composer and teacher.
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