Of the many 2015 concert series launched this month the initial offering by the Australian National Academy of Music would have to rate amongst the most exciting. Augmented by several alumni in the violin section and a handful of guest musicians and Faculty, these young musicians excelled themselves in a program that was thoughtfully constructed and splendidly performed.
Taking its title from Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, The Inextinguishable, the concert was at once a graphic response to the horror and tragedy of war and a celebration of the transcendent power of music. In his preface to this symphony Nielson wrote, ‘Music is life, and like it, inextinguishable’. Throughout the evening, the ANAM Orchestra provided persuasive evidence of the indestructible nature of a life-force affirmed through music.
Thought by many to be the most promising young English composer of his generation, in 1916 George Butterworth was killed during the Battle of the Somme, after winning the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry in action”. He was only 31. Before deploying to France he bequeathed the best of his small but select output to his close friend and fellow revitalizer of the English pastoral tradition, Ralph Vaughan Williams. A Shropshire Lad, Rhapsody for orchestra, expresses the thoughts of the exiled Shropshire lad of A.E. Housman’s poems, which Vaughan Williams had previously set. Although premiered in 1913 it could almost be heard as cry of longing from the trenches.
Under Stanley Dodds’ attentive direction the playing was well defined while retaining rhythmic elasticity. From the pianissimo murmur of the opening passages to the pulsating rhapsodic yearnings of gorgeous full string tone, the orchestra impressed with its colour and dynamic range. Echoing winds, snatches of sighing solo violin, and a final lingering flute and fading strings contributed to a moving experience.
Apart from his virtues as a conductor (he was recently appointed conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra), the presence of Stanley Dodds contributed to a happy meeting of three notable Australian violinists at different stages of their careers for Wilfred Lehmann’s Symphonic Requiem to the Child Victims of War. Wilfred Lehmann has had a distinguished international career as a violinist in addition to his output as composer; Stanley Dodds has been a tenured violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic since 1994, in addition to being much in demand as a conductor; and soloist for this work, ANAM alumnus Shane Chen, is making his mark as a solo violinist and chamber music player, most notably with the Flinders Quartet.
As the orchestra was being set up for the second item, Artistic Director Paul Dean reminisced about his association with Wilfred Lehmann in Queensland and playing in the 1993 premiere of his Symphonic Requiem. It is astonishing to think that what proved to be such an appealing and accessible work could have almost fallen into oblivion. The score had disappeared and was only discovered a year ago.
Shane Chen may not have been playing on a violin he had made himself (as Wilfred Lehmann had) but he gave a persuasive account of the demanding solo part of what is essentially a violin concerto. Its four movements, played without a pause, are full of striking effects that evoke intimations of military threat, the innocence of childhood, the brutality of war and, finally, the ensuing grief. The inclusion of a mandolin to conjure up the skipping innocence of childhood was most effective in Ruth Roshan’s capable hands, its fragility making a telling contrast to the orchestra in militaristic might, drums and tuba underpinning a relentless juggernaut of threat.
Chen’s violin, increasingly panic-stricken in character, culminated in an extended cadenza of keening that led in turn to a melody of lament, echoes of childhood and a final shiver of percussion bookending the piece. With such powerful and expressive playing from Chen and the orchestra and such decided approval from the audience it was little wonder that Wilfred Lehmann looked extremely pleased when he stood to take a bow. We had all been presented with a persuasive argument as to why this unjustly neglected work should be part of standard repertoire in Australian concert halls.
The eponymous work by Danish composer Carl Nielsen was not only a passionate assertion of the life force, but also a work supremely suited to a young band of musicians, whose age group have routinely been sent off to war. Completed in July 1916 (the exact month of Butterworth’s MC heroism) the four continuous movements of his symphony chart the violence and intensity of the battlefield. There is also a reflection of the turbulence of his domestic situation to add to the emotional urgency. After the primal onslaught of the opening chords and ensuing swirling energy, the wind section establishes a more optimistic and orderly note.
In the case of this performance a freak storm contributed to the effect with flashes of lightning at the windows and gusts of wind strong enough to rattle the doors of the auditorium. With the elements having their insistent say the performance began to take on a rather eerie, almost Shakespearean dimension; however, Nature was soon spent and the orderly, nostalgic serenade, beautifully played by the wind octet, held sway for the second movement. Lamenting strings and a dramatic duel between two sets of timpani were part of shifting moods that concluded on a triumphant note.
With such committed and talented musicians in all sections it is difficult to acknowledge specific achievements. In all works, Stanley Dodds was at pains to draw the best from his players, eliciting wonderful depth of sound and intensity with clear, focused direction. There was a sense of unity and cohesion in the playing which was enormously satisfying.
Just as the musicians must have felt thrilled by the presence of Wilfred Lehmann, having the gifted Stanley Dodds as conductor and guide would have undoubtedly been inspiring. His residency is an example of the ongoing international collaboration that makes ANAM such an important institution and a reminder of the significant contribution Australian musicians make to cultural life at home and abroad. By the end of the concert an enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience was ready to agree with Nielsen: “Music is Life”.
This concert by the Australian National Academy of Music was held at the South Melbourne Town Hall on February 28, 2015.
The picture is of conductor, Stanley Dodds.