wb, Edo!

In what seems like an era gone by, D and I dipped our toes into the world of the internet and the interactive possibilities of internet chat rooms. “wb” stood for “welcome back.” I don’t know if anybody uses it these days – I’ve moved on with the times, and when I last looked the level of verbalisation seemed to have receded to something analogous to the waiting minimalism of a gay sex-on-premises venue where, for those of you who don’t know, very little is said indeed.

Having drawn that dangerous analogy, I hasten pathetically to add that I haven’t been to a sex-on-premises venue lately either. I’ve moved on with the times in that regard as well, though it could be that’s my time (older, prospects poorer) rather than the times in general.

Anyway, deep breath, composure restored.

In the past week or so I have been twice to hear the SSO conducted by Edo de Waart. The first program, on a Saturday night, featured Beethoven 7, the Barber Adagio for Strings and John Adams’ Harmonium.

This was part of the formerly “Energy Australia” and now “Ausgrid” series. So an issue which helped bring a government down leaves its momentary mark on high culture: Ausgrid is the state-owned rump of “Energy Australia” following the sale of the retail component by the NSW government. The retail component took the name “Energy Australia: but (funny that!) apparently did not assume the sponsorship liabilities and hence the naming rights which came with it. So now we have an Ausgrid Stadium in Newcastle and an Ausgrid series at the Opera House. It is hard to see what need Ausgrid has of these naming rights so I guess when the agreement comes to an end both orchestra and stadium will be casting around for a new patron.

The second, entitled “The Last Romantic” was a both-Rach-3 program – piano concerto and symphony. That was part of a series sponsored by Emirates, the airline. In years gone by, this was marked by uniformed hostesses coming on stage to present the bouquets. I used to think that was tacky. Now, bathed in the aura of nostalgia, it starts to seem picturesque. That just goes to show that there’s never pleasing some people.

Applause is an intriguing aspect of group psychology. Regardless of their undignified renaming, the Ausgrid audience is probably the SSO’s most deeply entrenched. When de Waart (actually, we like to call him “Edo”) came on to the stage, he was warmly applauded. There was a distinct “welcome back” message. That was not just a message to him (“wb, Edo!”) but also a message to each other (“We remember when he was here before and we’re all welcoming Edo back together.”)

This wasn’t so marked for the Friday concert. It’s a series with a shorter history (I can’t remember the year the series began: there was some controversy because it replaced a sabbath-compatible series and so precluded more-observant Jews from attending). Rach 3 – the concerto rather than the symphony – was probably as much a draw card as de Waart. Then again, maybe the audience was just a bit non-plussed by the sight of a mere line of brass players for Rautavaara’s A Requiem in Our Time.

Of the big works, I found the Adams the most riveting even though somewhere in the last movement the rate of invention slowed and I began to feel that it was going on a bit. It really is a dazzling piece. On reflection, “dazzling” wrongly suggests a kind of superficial sparkle, as does even “brilliant.” Maybe “compelling” comes closer to the mark, though I don’t mean to suggest there is any shortage of big bright sound. I thought it deserved a better reception from the audience than it got – then again, this was the SSO Saturday Night Subscription crowd.

The Beethoven was chaste by comparison (small forces, briskish tempi, clarity of texture and lots of interesting effects especially in the third movement and particularly the pedal note on the horn!) and the Barber a lush anti-sorbet between.

In the second concert, I only really warmed to the Rautavaara in the third movement when it stopped sounding like high-class band music. The Rach 3 was, well, Rach 3, but with an intelligent approach, at first apparently unassuming (the opening piano theme more hummed than declaimed) but bursting out of the box for the big moments, especially the cadenzas). This was the definite crowd pleaser of the concert.

Judging from the final applause, the symphony was a bit of a puzzle for all by comparison. I think this was the work rather than the performance, and especially the rather funny chugging-accelerando finish which snuck up (on me, at least) rather unforewarnedly.

The second concert was repeated and broadcast live on Monday night, and I was keen to get home to hear it. In the end, as it was a 7pm concert, I only managed from half-way through the concerto. I’m glad I did, because on second hearing the symphony made more sense, including that rather odd ending, and my admiration of the performance was enhanced.

It can be a bit awkward when a former chief conductor returns as a guest. During the tenure of the conductor’s successor, there is the prospect of comparisons which may be invidious, and in the case of de Waart and Gelmetti, probably were. That is an issue which recedes on further successions. (Speaking of which, what’s the score with Ashkenazy? This is the third and last year of his initially-announced term.)

So far as I can recall, this is only the second time that de Waart has returned. The first was in 2006. Unlike Dorian Gray’s portrait, de Waart’s publicity photo remains the same. Otherwise, he’s like the rest of us. I hope we can see him again and earlier than 2016.

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