Dum! da-da-Dum! dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum!

That’s the opening of the Grieg piano concerto, in case you are wondering – sans the opening timpani roll. Nobody is ever able to recognize musical exerpts when I sing them. I wonder why?

Tonight to the SSO performance of that by Gabriela Montero, conducted by Eivind Gullberg Jensen.

The program as a whole was:

GRAINGER
Danish Folksong Suite
GRIEG
Piano Concerto
HONEGGER
Liturgical Symphony (Symphony No.3)

That is an eclectic program, though it did has some thematic basis, at least for the first half. The conductor is Norwegian; Grieg is Norway’s national composer. Grainger was a “champion” of the Grieg concerto, though it is far from clear how much championing it has ever needed. Grainger met Grieg in the last year of Grieg’s life, and you get the impression he dined out on this musically for rather a long time. Indeed, he even recorded the concerto (posthumously) with the Sydney Symphony, courtesy of Dennis Condon’s piano roll collection and an ingenious machine. Grainger had a life-long enthusiasm for folk music and the Germanic races – hence his Danish Folksong Suite.

This was delightful. The orchestration was lush if a little thick – a consequence, I suspect, of elastic scoring when every one turns up. At times it sounded like a very deluxe school orchestra. It was comical to see the harmonium player furiously pedalling away in white tie and tails.

The Grieg concerto itself is a youthful work. In my own musical autobiography it is a teenage work – the first movement is quite straightforward and every boy and his dog had a go at it and probably still does. Significantly, the last performance by the SSO was by David Tong at a “Meet the Music” concert. I couldn’t remember when it had last been heard in a grownup series. In fact, as the program mentioned, that was in 1983 – it’s only been in matinees or youth series in the intervening period.

Although the opening is probably its most famous moment, I personally find the first half of the second movement the best, probably because I am a sucker for muted strings. In the second half of that movement movement, the lyrical and slow F major section feels rather arbitrarily interposed. I began to feel the cracks, albeit glued over, between the different sections, and it all started to sound a bit silly. Or at least it did on this occasion. I wonder if this was just a consequence of a youthful enthusiasm revisited in my jaded middle age.

Nevertheless, it is popular, and the audience loved it, even as I wondered how it could be that in the third performance Gabriela Montero still beat the orchestra on some of the big chords. But enough of that – I am not a critic.

As an encore or two, GM played two of her “trade mark” improvisations. The conductor proposed the theme for the first improvisation, on Grieg’s “Varen” – in G major from the piano at the back of the orchestra (left over from the Grainger and waiting for the Honneger). I was a bit surprised that Montero didn’t seem to know it. She finished in E minor – probably by way of a musical question mark, as surely she was planning another. This she did – on “Waltzing Matilda” – or at least the chorus to that, after Dene Olding outlined a few of the salient phrases. As Montero cheerfully but accurately commented, it’s not a very good song. Often the weakest musical material is best for this sort of thing, and so it proved.

It is a common programming tactic to couple a well-known and popular work such as the Grieg with something more obscure. The idea is that an audience will be wooed by the favourite and be prepared to accept a more worthy work in the second half. In this case, the tactic backfired: perhaps audiences have wised up to the trick and many may even have over-compensated in anticipation. On this occasion, as well as the usual diminution of audience for the second half, a lot of people stayed away altogether. I have never seen a Saturday evening concert with so many empty seats.

This was a pity, because the Liturgical Symphony, last performed by the SSO at its Australian premiere 1952 under Bernard Heinze, was a powerful work – and not nearly as unpalatable as the sweet first half might have led some to fear. This stands to reason – just how scary is a piece written in 1946 by a composer born in 1892 likely to be? Yes, there was discordance, but each movement had a very consistent rhythmic affect. It is also one of the few orchestral works where the orchestral piano, here mostly used as a bass instrument, was really integrated into the orchestration.

I missed the pre-concert talk, as well as the commemorative cup-cakes for the 25th anniversary of those talks’ inceptions. To tell the truth, I almost never get to these. It’s not entirely that I’m too much of a snob for them. It’s just that my routine – pre-concert nap, parking on the street some way away at my secret spot, a brisk walk to the Opera House and not liking to hang around too much before the music starts – isn’t suited to them.

On Monday, Gabriela Montero is playing a recital. The entire Half of the second half is slated as her improvisations. I do hope this isn’t too much. I’m just a bit trepidatious about half [OK:] a quarter of an evening of pastiches. Judging from her encores tonight, she generally concentrates on a single phrase in her “rambles” (to nod Grainger-wards), and generally on the incipit. I doubt if I will muster the nerve, but if asked on Monday I would like to challenge her with the chorus of the Beatles’ All you need is love.

4 Responses to “Dum! da-da-Dum! dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum!”

  1. Thom Says:

    Perhaps the mustering of nerve will be aided by the knowledge that not all of the second half, but half of the second half has been slated as improvisation. I would be quite interested to hear some improvisation on original themes as opposed to the other kind.

  2. Neil Says:

    I was able to snooze in comfort, and avoided the brisk walk. I listened to this concert on ABC Classic FM. Mind you that could also be what most of those empty seats were doing…

  3. Snubbed! -or, Why I am not a critic 3 « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] Stumbling on melons Just another WordPress.com weblog « Dum! da-da-Dum! dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum dadaDum! […]

  4. marcellous Says:

    @ Thom:

    Well you saw how far my mustered nerve got me. I don’t think any original theme would have been taken up. For one thing, that couldn’t ever be such a giggle.

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