The word “gala” relates to special entertainments and comes from an Old French word “gale”, which means “rejoicing”. True to that sense, there was plenty to celebrate in this performance at the Festival Theatre.
Jean Sibelius’s best-known work, “Finlandia”, was a strong first piece, in which dark and moody brass-laden tones representing oppression were leavened and eventually cast aside as woodwinds heralded better times for his country. The air of optimism was captured well in swirls of ascending strings for an uplifting finish.
The widely-respected and effervescent Simon Tedeschi at the Steinway concert grand piano for Edvard Grieg’s best-known composition, “Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16”. From the first rumbling of drums, he made this his own, dexterously interweaving complex and often delicate phrases with familiar and dramatic ones. His variations in timing and dynamics gave beautiful expression to the work.
Tedeschi was clearly enjoying himself and was absorbed in the orchestra’s playing whenever there was a rest in his own. It would have been a greater pleasure if his performance was not so buried in the mix when the full orchestra was playing as well. He executed a small jump of pleasure at the end and, in an encore, offered a brief and humorous medley of mostly modern tunes with a nod to a few that were classical. It cemented a warm reception from the audience.
The big one was Gustav Holst’s hugely influential “The Planets”, often the source for soundtrack material. This rich and varied combination of seven movements is linked to their astrological significances. Highlights? “Mars, the Bringer of War” meets the listener head-on with ominous and escalating suspense that drives in a beautifully controlled path to a brutal climax. “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is, expectedly, a counterpoint. Its pastoral strings provide a hiatus.
There is great variety in the seven movements — power, calm, Disneyesque lightness, little kisses of colour, restraint, ebullience. The whole is brought to an ethereal close with “Neptune, the Mystic”, largely due to Northey’s conducting and the sound of an invisible choir. Wonderfully modulated singing (backstage or pre-recorded?) from Aurora, Young Adelaide Voices made Neptune a piece to remember. It was a shame that they did not get their own time on stage so that the audience could show their clear appreciation.
The encore for a full house was Elgar’s “The Wild Bears”, a lively piece that Northey describes as “visceral”. If the idea is still to leaving an audience wanting more, the ASO managed that perfectly.
In all, the concert provided a full evening of wide-ranging musical flavours. The 2019 program is definitely going to be one to savour.
The ASO’s Season Opening Gala was presented at the Festival Theatre on Saturday. The orchestra’s next performances will be a Chinese New Year Concert (February 10) and ASO Plays James Bond (February 15 and 16).