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Music review: ASO's A Time for Heroes

Music

War and heroism were the themes of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s sixth Master Series concert of the year, which culminated with an enthralling showcase performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

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In its Master Series, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra delivers well-chosen pieces that are often new to many members of its audiences. United by a different theme in each case, they provide an accomplished introduction to a range of composers.

On this occasion, with Mark Wigglesworth conducting, the accent was on war and heroic attributes, but the three works varied dramatically.

Holst’s “The Planets: I. ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’” opened with a sense of brooding menace, its martial feeling reinforced by a strong combination of horns and percussion that periodically subsided and allowed the strings to hold sway. One could certainly imagine marching soldiers up to that point.

A later lull was embellished with swirling strings until the horns crept back in, the piece swelling as drums and horns combined in repetitive bursts that grew in volume. Even as a cymbal seemed to denote an end, with a slow ebb following, there was a regular and emphatic beat, a frantic repetition. This was a beautifully controlled work with moments of sheer majesty.

Next was Walton’s “Suite from Henry V”, a complex and varied offering from a composer who wrote for movies both produced by and starring Laurence Olivier. The version on this night was the score for the motion picture Henry V. It harnessed shifts between delicacy and agitation that suggested large atmospheric changes. It was possible to read these as contrasting peaceful moments with battle, the former realised with hovering strings, soft horn playing and intermittent harp, for instance. Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting came to the fore again as he led the orchestra through such changes.

Actor Mark Leonard Winter periodically recited passages from Shakespeare’s play, providing context for the suite. This was a mixed success, initially let down by a casual approach when he combined a hand-in-pocket stance with what were meant to be rousing speeches, but it got much better as it continued.

The big one, in duration as well as a musical showcase sense, was Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’”, on the subject of heroism. At almost an hour, it is taxing on musicians but the time flew for the audience as the ASO offered a beautifully modulated interpretation of its four movements.

Wigglesworth conducted with vigour, eliciting wonderful textures. This was much less forceful than the preceding pieces but still energetic — sometimes lyrical and reserved, sometimes so persuasive and uplifting that it fitted with that notion of music made for the body as much as the mind.

Divorced from the knowledge of its putative theme, one might have thought it to be simply about celebrating the spirit of achievement. It was an enthralling hour or so with an orchestra on top of their game, which the audience acknowledged with much applause.

On the basis of this night’s performance, Adelaide has a lot to look forward to with future nights in the Master Series.

Mark Wigglesworth will also conduct the ASO’s next Master Series concert, Love & War, at the Adelaide Town Hall this Friday and Saturday.

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