Meet the Music

On Thursday, I went to my last Meet the Music concert for the year.

It may be my last such concert for a while, because after 2 years I have given up my subscription to the series. That’s partly because I have diverted my available funds (supposing those to be finite or at least subject to some government of my susceptibility to temptation) to meet the expense of the SSO’s heftily-priced guest soloists for next year. Despite the excellent seat available to me [here is the proof, for the cognoscenti, of its excellence: this season I sat next to David and Alison Gyger, who must be two of Sydney’s most inveterate concert- and opera-goers], other aspects of the series and most of all the inconvenience of an early start weighed in the balance against continuing the commitment.

It was a memorable night.

More than usually, the concert was in two halves. I know that sounds logically silly so I must explain. Unusually, there were two conductors: Richard Gill in the first and Thomas Ades in the second. And each half was a “big” half, so that the program as a whole was a good deal longer than usual, comprising:

[Conductor: Gill]
Paul Stanhope: Fantasia on a Theme by Vaughan Williams
Tchaickovsky Piano Concerto No 1 – Maxwell Foster, piano

[Conductor, Ades]
Ades: Asyla
Tchaickovsky: Nutcracker Suite No 1

I have heard the Stanhope before. I know the Vaughan Williams tune and as a one-time singer from the English Hymnal I probably have “RVW” engraved on my [musical] heart (cf Mary I and “callous”). I liked best the opening and closing sections. I was less keen on the middle sections, which seemed to owe a debt to Bernstein and West Side Story and to be less true to either RVW or Stanhope himself, as though he was trying to be Matthew Hindson or even Graham Koehne and to write something snappy for the Yoof – my heart generally sinks when I hear a kit drum in an orchestra. A lot of the more interesting figurative detail within the beats seemed pretty much overlooked by Mr Gill.

Maxwell Foster is a winner of the ABC Young Performer of the Year. He is not long out of school in Melbourne and has just started studies in London. I am reasonably sure that within even a year and certainly within 2 he will in at least some ways cringe at his performance of the Tchaickovsky. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t play well, but this is a work which has a high scope for this. I wouldn’t have thought his performance was as good as any one of a number of Sydney Piano Competition finalists over the years. But of course it was still enjoyable – it’s the Tchaickovsky piano concerto, for God’s sake! The audience lapped it up. Peter McCallum gives a more analytical account in passing in the SMH; I would mostly have preferred that Foster lighten up in the quiter and more scampering textures – and yes and not only in the example Mr McCallum gives from the performance he saw, there were some odd mismatches of tempi between soloist and orchestra.

The real treat of the evening was to hear Thomas Adès conduct his own breakthrough prize-winning orchestral work from about 1997, Asyla. We owed this to Ades’ more substantial recent engagement in Melbourne. I wonder if limited availability on Adès’ part was the reason he was conducting only half the program: I wouldn’t want to think that it was because Mr Gill could not be deprived his half.

I first heard an Adès piece when Imogen Cooper included one in her program in Sydney, I guess, about 1997 (probably Traced Overhead which she premiered at Cheltenham in 1996). I’ve liked what I’ve heard since. I really do want to see one day his opera about the [in]famous (especially to law students) Duchess of Argyll: Powder her Face – even if the notorious fellatio scene proves too much for me (more likely, it would be insufficient in the MFN department).

The most striking aspect of Asyla was for me the extreme orchestration and the assuredness with which it was compositionally invoked and, in the performance, directed. I’m afraid it rather showed up Stanhope as directed by Gill. For one thing, Adès showed that you don’t need a drum kit to get orchestrally funky. But there was one intriguing possible resemblance: both works ended with what I can only think as a post-modernist take on the Mahlerian hammer-blow of fate – not so much a thud as [echoes of Frank Kermode’s final essay on Eliot and the shudder] a shrug. Actually, I’m still not 100% sure if the Stanhope one wasn’t just an accident on the night.

If the concert had finished then, it would have been quite substantial fare. A busload of schoolchildren trouped out from the front right stalls. But there was more!

The Nutcracker Suite was lively and inevitably enjoyable, though it did suggest that Adès’s particular advantages as a conductor are best on display when he conducts his own work. Andrew Ford, who gives an onstage commentary in this series, was at pains to argue that Tchaikovsky had created orchestral effects which we still think of as modern, but I think this was quite unnecessary – I suspect him of really wanting to say that orchestral effects which we think of as modern are very like Tchaikovsky, which seems to me a slightly different and slightly preachy proposition. He’s not immune to this as he had another dig in his talk about talking about how music feels as not being talking music at all, which felt to me like a slightly snobbish and misguided rejection of madrigalism and musical semiotics as sitting somewhere critically below the salt, an attitude not dissimilar to his declaration in a previous concert that if you don’t have something original to say you shouldn’t compose at all.

At the risk, nay the certainty, of repeating myself: a memorable and despite any critical comments I have let loose, enjoyable night. It may have helped that in the morning judgment was handed down not entirely but more than sufficiently in my clients’ favour in a legal battle which has been going on for one client for more than ten years, and in which I have been involved for more than three. That’s also the sort of thing which is inclined to cheer one up.

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