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Review: ASO’s Classics Unwrapped: In the Still of the Night

Music

With Guy Noble as a humorous and informative presenter and conductor, this Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Classics Unwrapped concert was a chance to appreciate seven entertaining pieces united by the common theme of night.

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First cab away was Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, played without Noble present. He joked that he wasn’t needed for such a familiar piece and lead violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto very ably filled in.

One of the pleasures of this piece is its modulations, the variations between longer, bowed and piano notes, for instance, which add vitality. It calls for a light touch, some delicacy. Played with verve, it never wears out its welcome. Understandably placed as an introduction, it was, however, perhaps still a little too safe and obvious a choice.

Benjamin Britten’s “Moonlight”, the third of the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, was a different matter. As Noble said, it reflected an uneasy story of death at sea, and the music’s “pulsating offbeat” effect was evident in the contrast between slow, solemn strings and the intermittent bright sparking overlay of high notes from the harp and flutes, as if moonlight speckled swelling waves.

The following two pieces were offered in combination. Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music: “Night Waltz” had an energetic film-score feel. Its swirling, fluid movements also suggested a Broadway musical; altogether quite different from the preceding Britten piece and certainly from Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre which came quickly after. Death was evoked here as a character via sorrowful tri-tone playing from Yoshimoto that led through beautifully varied and lively passages. Thoroughly engaging.

“Fêtes”, from Debussy’s Nocturnes, was less arresting in comparison. The real treat lay next, with principal cellist Simon Cobcroft performing Max Bruch’s moving “Kol Nidrei”, the title coming from the opening words of the service for the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The lyrical and aching sounds from Cobcroft’s interpretation of this haunting tone poem elicited great applause.

Two brief Rossini pieces from Soirées musicales arranged by Britten came after, and then what would arguably be the grand piece of the show.

Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” is sheer musical storytelling. From the opening swirl of strings and the majestic pump of the horns, we know something evil is afoot. It is simply demonic: no subtlety here. The atmosphere is stormy and threatening. This was not all wall of sound, however. Even as its trajectory repeatedly moved towards crescendo, there were brief moments of respite, of shelter, before another frontal attack was resumed. Eventually a calm settles, as distant church bells ring and day dawns. If the end seemed a little ragged, a sweetener was the encore, also from Soirées musicales.

The lay listener is likely to recognise key passages from some of these works straight away, such is their popularity. The order was effective and the quality of playing, with rare exception, was very rewarding. Altogether, another successful Classics Unwrapped concert for the ASO.

The next ASO Classics Unwrapped concert, An Invitation to the Dance, will be performed at the Town Hall on November 7. As part of its showcase series, the orchestra is presenting Star Wars: A New Hope in concert at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre Arena this Saturday.

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