Recently, Jose Carreras was asked “Who is the greatest living composer of classical music?” He responded with two names and, perhaps unexpectedly, Thomas Adès was one. It would be hard to argue with that judgment when listening to his Three Studies from Couperin, the first work in the Australian National Academy of Music’s opening concert for 2017, titled Enigma. With Nicholas Carter conducting the ANAM Orchestra at the South Melbourne Town Hall, the program on March 4 comprised:
ADES Three Studies from Couperin
BRITTEN Sinfonia da Requiem
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
ELGAR Variations on an Original Theme op. 36 Enigma
A line of five shiny objects that looked like steering wheels of graduated size loomed large at the back of the orchestra. These strange implements were rototoms, a percussion instrument tuned by turning the discs and used by pop musicians such as Pink Floyd in Dark Side of the Moon. Comprising three movements the initial Les Amusemens is a complex, wafting movement of changing dynamics, syncopations and rhythmic elasticity. Alto and bass flutes, marimba, and muted strings gave the impression of viewing a courtly dance through a misty window. It was perhaps a strange beginning to such a concert, but fascinating nevertheless. The second dance-like movement, Les Tours de Passe-passe (The Sleight-of-Hand) featured some effective horn work, plucked strings and a vigorous climax. The final movement, L’Âme-en-peine (The Soul in Distress) again featured dynamic contrasts with the horn to the fore. The orchestra negotiated the subtleties of Adès’ writing with considerable skill, but the quiet, melancholy ending is not designed to inspire rapturous applause.
Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem also ends on a sombre note, but contains ample opportunity for expressive playing. The unexpected timpani onslaught at the beginning of the Lachrymosa was a powerful reminder that this is no ordinary rendering of a sacred text. Weighty string tone gave depth to the pulsating rhythms and a disturbing wailing of flutes magnified the anguish of the movement. The Dies Irae was notable for some precise work by the nimble trumpet of Fletcher Cox and Luke Carbon’s smooth saxophone. The galloping energy of this “Dance of Death” wound down into a contrasting Requiem with its quiet passage of beautifully modulated strings, followed by flutes and a climax of drums before it subsided. Again, although the performance itself was admirable, the work itself demanded a relatively restrained response.
The second half of the program began with a work for strings alone: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Depending on dense, lush string tone this iconic piece of English Pastoral music was given a fervent reading by the ANAM students and a sprinkling of alumni, guests and Faculty. The hushed opening phrases, the effective distancing of the choir division quartet, placed in the balcony for the responses, and some impressive solo work from the quartet of Principal players (Hilary Hayes, Mana Ohashi, Beth Condon and Jovan Pantelich), imbued the work with considerable emotional power and atmosphere.
Solid work from the strings was also apparent in the final work: Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme op. 36 Enigma. The lower strings underpinned the full orchestral sound that opens the first portrait: Elgar’s devoted wife Alice. Throughout the 14 contrasting portraits that constitute this icon of English music Elgar gives ample opportunity for each section of the orchestra to display technical skill and musical understanding. The hushed stillness of the transcendent Nimrod variation was as swoon-worthy as ever and Nicholas Carter’s expansive gestures swept the orchestra and the audience into the world of Elgar’s creative genius for the final exultant variation.
If this concert was a fair indication of what The Academy has planned for the rest of the year, Melbourne audiences have much to look forward to.