Canberra Symphony Orchestra

For the past few years I have made numerous trips to Canberra to see my father and stepmother.  These trips were mostly on a lengthened weekend.  They became more regular last year after my stepmother died and my father was on his own.

A lot of Canberra’s big concerts are on week nights – perhaps because historically so many Canberrans leave on the weekends for either the coast or, if in search of Kultur, a bigger city such as Sydney.  As a result, despite my best intentions, excursions with my father in our last year together were mostly confined to rural drives or to the cinema.  We enjoyed these, but I regretted not being able to get him to any live performances.

Last week, in town for the week with my sisters to deal with my father’s effects, I went on Thursday to hear the CSO conducted by Nicholas Milton at the Llewellyn Hall in what I still think of as the Canberra School of Music.  Now part of the ANU, it is a ghost of its former self. A forlorn display of historic instruments in the foyer could stand as a memorial to that.

The other memorial is the presence in the CSO of players who made the historical emigration from ABC orchestras to Canberra in the mid-to-late late 70s when the School of Music was staffed on a basis that made taking a teaching appointment an attractive proposition.

The program was:

Weber – Der Freischütz overture;
Brahms – Double concerto – soloists Indira Koch and Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt ;
Dvořák – Symphony No 7.

Unwisely I allowed the Ticketek staff to whom the CSO has outsourced its box-office function to oversell me a ticket in the middle of row T of the stalls, which turned out to be beneath the overhang of the gallery.  I should have stuck to my earlier resolve to take a cheap seat upstairs on the side where (contrary to the Ticketek staff’s advice) sight-lines would have been perfectly satisfactory and the sound could hardly have failed to have been better than in row T.

The other problem was that, as for most orchestras where the numbers of string players are a bit low for the repertoire, you need to be able to make a kind of psychological adjustment for the proportionate changes in the sound.  The veteran players of the CSO are mostly evident in the winds and principals of the brass. They were good and indeed, in the case of the flutes, more audible than the SSO flutes are in the SOH Concert Hall, but with string numbers of 10,9,6,5,4, (that’s v1,v2,vla,vc,cb respectively) you really need strength throughout the string sections, which I missed in the violins.  I hazard to guess that perhaps also a lot of time playing together can help a smaller string complement assert itself. That’s hard for a part-time/casual orchestra like the CSO.

I felt the lack of string bulk most of all in the Brahms which I usually think of requiring a fairly massive approach, especially in the first movement.  And the sound of the orchestra a whole was odd in a way I cannot now pinpoint as I have already effaced the memory.  These things combined to a point where at times I came close to wondering what I was listening to or why I had paid almost $80 to hear it.

Time has healed most wounds but I recall one oddly big timpani moment just before the soloists’ final return to the fray in the first movement of the Brahms.

I hasten to add that my fellow audience-members showed no sign of suffering from any such disquiet.  I guess they are grateful for what they can get in Canberra – the orchestra has a very loyal subscriber base and the concert was well-booked (which accounted for the limited choices available to me when I rolled up).  Being alone in my grumpiness amidst such pleasure only exacerbated it.

So at interval, chatting to someone I knew from law school 20+ years ago who now finds himself posted to Canberra (“Up the greasy pole?” I asked; “No, not promoted this millennium,” he cheerfully replied; his other joke was a remark about whether this concert included anything by “Eastlakes”), I spoil-sportedly told him that I was close to leaving but that failing that I might go upstairs on the side in the second half so that if things did not improve for me I could slip quietly away.

In the end I went back in downstairs but to a seat three rows forward in row Q, free of the curse of the overhang.

The moment the Dvořák started I felt an improvement in the sound – by at least 40% and not accountable for merely by the effects of an interval double short black which had probably not yet had a chance to kick in. The strings, especially the violins, were still understrength at key moments, but I could make adjustments for that.  Even when I felt that the 3rd movement (the most like a Slavonic dance) was a touch fast, I could recognize that as a plausible response to the orchestra’s proportions.

I’m glad I went back. 

Afterwards, my neighbour explained that the seats just under the gallery used to have the best sound, but that in his opinion that had changed when the hall had been refurbished a few years ago after storm damage.

It just goes to show how important local knowledge can be.




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