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Review: ASO's Freedom and Joy

Music

A close weave of emotional and musical connections created a new pattern in this final concert for the year in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s master series.

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Dubbed Freedom and Joy, the program – performed on Friday and Saturday nights at the Town Hall – was essentially about ecumenism. Or, to use a less out-of-favour word, peace.

The first half featured Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” – a commission to the prolific Jewish composer and conductor from an Anglican Church figure in the UK in the 1960s.

The second – Beethoven’s epic Symphony No. 9 in D Minor with its glorious variations on “Ode to Joy” – is connected to Bernstein via the theme of peace.

The ASO has been celebrating the centenary of Bernstein’s birth this year, and the maestro has a famous historical connection to Beethoven’s 9th. On Christmas Day 1989, amid the euphoria of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bernstein conducted a performance of the symphony in the unified German capital, changing the word “joy” to “freedom”.

Given the state of the world, as conductor Nicholas Carter pointed out at the beginning, these two life-affirming works have much to say to us.

Carter also dedicated the performance to Richard Gill, his mentor and one of Australia’s most beloved conductors and music educators, who died late last month. Carter dashed to Sydney between performances to conduct a tribute concert to Gill.

All of this preamble means that these fine and complex works were imbued with a layer of extra emotion.

The psalms – performed in Hebrew by the Adelaide Chamber Singers Symphonic Chorus, with treble Charlie Wells –  are, appropriately, musically ecumenical, with an exuberant, jazz-inflected opening, the treble and harp interjected with a West Side Story-style cut and thrust (“Why do the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?”) before the beautiful final movement in which the entire chorus comes to the fore. It was cinematic in its sweep. (This was the ASO’s first performance of the “Chichester Psalms” – I hope not the last.)

The symphony following the interval was not, perhaps, the ASO’s most precise or clinical performance of Beethoven – but, truly, it was passionate and filled with heart.

The first two movements only hint at what’s to come, and the ASO’s parts contribute beautifully to its whole in these and the slower third.

Then in the fourth, the chorus and soloists – who sat unarmed for a good 45 minutes – rose and, under Carter’s baton, created almost a frenzy of the eponymous joy. A battleground of joy, if you’ll excuse the irony, with the tempo at thundercrack pace.

Emotional and exhilarating.

Disclosure: A member of the reviewer’s family performed in the chorus.

The ASO’s next performance will be Handel’s Messiah, at Elder Hall, on December 13, 14 and 15. Conductor Guy Noble will be presenting the Christmas Proms, with the ASO, over the same weekend at the Festival Theatre.

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