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Review: ASO’s The Adventure Begins

Music

The opening performance in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 season – and the first Master Series concert of the year – sought to represent a sense of adventure.

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On the whole that notion was an awkward fit, but it did not stop the ASO providing a very popular program, especially with the featured skills of violinist Grace Clifford.

One could argue that musical adventure might arise if works are strikingly different from contemporary output, or are produced in difficult circumstances, or continue to be offered after initially poor reception. Alternatively, adventure might be apparent in the theme of an individual concerto if it claims inspiration from a dramatic story. We got some of each.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Op.96 began under the animated conducting of Hendrik Vestmann with a fanfare that ushers in an orchestral flourish, before moving through soothing swirls and attacks, the latter often driven by the clarinets. An interlude with the strings’ soft pizzicato was brief; they inevitably matched the pace and vigour of the clarinets and horns as they all galloped to a supercharged finish, complete with another fanfare. Energy plus! Perhaps adventure was in the back-story, considering the speed with which Shostakovich pulled the composition together.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, Op.35 was the highlight. It has endured despite an early critic’s claim that is was structurally weak and too difficult to play properly. Audiences in 1881 hated it. And in Adelaide? The ASO’s emerging artist in association, Grace Clifford, was in absolute command, bringing exquisite control and flair to bear in her violin playing — and the local audience was rapt, calling for and getting a short encore.

Clifford characteristically swayed as she performed. She shifted seamlessly between moments of delicate sweetness and intensity, as if carrying a sorrow, and produced shimmering runs. The next movement began like a polite conversation between violin and orchestra before leaping into car-chase mode, accelerating into a lively folk dance feel and then a more sombre mood.

The concerto is filled with shifting emotions, allowing Clifford to demonstrate virtuosic ability. She has a remarkable, even mesmerising, ability to sustain the highest pitch, and will be a big draw in later shows. As for the theme of adventure, perhaps it lay in Tchaikovsky presenting such a challenging composition. Kudos to Vestmann here as well in conducting it.

Third and last was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35 based on The Thousand and One Nights. There is adventure plus here, since those who know the story will be aware of the repeated threat of imminent death; certainly enough to galvanise one’s survival instincts and adrenaline.

There is an occasional motif in which the lead violin (concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto in scintillating form) plays Scheherazade against a gentle harp (Carolyn Burgess). The suite itself is very light on structured narrative, relying more on listeners inferring events from the titles of each movement. Still, there was beautifully conducted playing from the orchestra as the string section evoked luxurious calm one moment and urgent, almost brutal passages the next, such as when depicting the shipwreck.

If the theme was a bit dubious, the quality of playing was never to be doubted, especially that of Clifford. Thank goodness Tchaikovsky didn’t pack up his Violin Concerto in D, Op.35 in high dudgeon after the first critics’ and audiences’ reactions!

It should be noted, as the ASO’s managing director Vincent Ciccarello, did, that the concert was presented in memory of double bass player David Phillips.

The next concert in the ASO’s Master Series will be Natsuko Plays Brahms on April 3 and 4. The orchestra is presenting its first Classics Unwrapped concert of the year this Wednesday at the Town Hall and The Meditation Series: Silence this Friday at Grainger Studio.

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