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ANAM OPENING CONCERT: AWAKENING

by Heather Leviston

If any member of the audience was feeling the slightest bit drowsy prior to the Australian National Academy of Music’s Opening Concert, an awakening was assured with the initial works: Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon per Septimi Toni and Michael Tippett’s Praeludium for brass, bells and percussion.

The antiphonal effect of Gabrieli’s stirring three-minute work would have been heighted by greater separation of the two brass choirs, but precision and solid golden tone appeared to benefit from the tight physical arrangement. This set up also resulted in less time being needed to prepare for the following item, when four percussionists and fourteen brass players, quickly assembled for the Tippett without any loss of momentum. Tippett’s presentation of contrasting brass sonorities – lyricism for the six horns (and two tubas), solemnity for the three trombones, and brilliance for the three trumpets – was an ideal way of showcasing the strengths of these young musicians. Even discounting the assistance of a couple of Faculty members (there was a particularly brilliant performance by Yoram Levy leading on trumpet), the standard of playing was impressive. After listening to this and subsequent items, we were astonished to learn that they had been together in rehearsal for less than a week.

Beethoven’s Egmont Overture arr. Taubmann for 2 pianos (8 hands) and the Bizet/Willberg version of Carmen Fantasie arr. for 2 pianos (8 hands) provided an opportunity for six ANAM pianists to display their skills in technique and coordination. Maggie Pang, Sine Winther, Hannah Pike and Jennifer Yu whipped up considerable excitement in a virtuoso rendition of the Carmen Fantasy, which was a major highlight of the evening.

An even more jaw-dropping level of coordination was displayed Akira Nishimura’s Kecak for six percussionists. As the stage was being set up for Kecak, Head of Percussion, Peter Neville, spoke about the work and its relationship to the Hindu epic Ramayana, seeing himself on shiny tubular bells as the Prince and John Arcaro as the Evil King on timpani. In some ways these two Faculty members seemed to have the easy roles; students (a label that hardly does justice to their technical and artistic maturity) James Knight, Nathan Gatenby, Alexander Meagher and Alison Fane had the task of eleven solid minutes of concentrated focus on the complex drum rhythms along with extended monkey chant passages on the syllable “tjak… tjak… tjak” and the occasional shift from drums to maracas, clap sticks and punctuations of perfectly synchronised hand claps. And they didn’t miss a beat. No wonder this energising finale to the first part of the concert it was so wildly popular with the audience.

After interval, ANAM’s Artistic Director, Nick Deutsch thanked the people who continue to support ANAM in so many ways and ensure its success as Australia’s foremost training institution for young aspiring professional musicians. He also thanked Janet Galpin, who, as representative of the Boon Wurrung people, gave a welcome to country address emphasising the importance of purpose – an entirely appropriate message given the nature of ANAM and the continuance of the site as a place of cultural expression.

The second half of the program comprised Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite 100th Anniversary and the Australian premiere of Helmut Lachenmann’s Marche fatale for orchestra. Playing as Principal cello, Howard Penny also directed the Pulcinella Suite seated on a rostrum. This was an ambitious undertaking considering the limited rehearsal time and the likelihood that some musicians would not have played the work before. But, apart from some uneasy rhythmic transitions in earlier movements, the choice of repertoire was more than justified in the way it afforded the opportunity for all sections of the orchestra to shine. As Concertmaster, Harry Ward played the many solo passages with confidence and flair. Noah Rudd also made a fine contribution on oboe. A robust, swirling Tarantella and characterful playing from trombone and lower strings in the Duetto convincingly captured the spirit of Stravinsky’s eight-movement neoclassical work – one originally thought to be based on music by Pergolesi. It is, as the program note claims, “a happy marriage of eighteenth-century style and twentieth century genius”.

A different kind of wit informs Lachenmann’s work. There is a dark irony present in the way he treats a march. In an attempt to explain his intentions he has written, “At some point I decided to take ‘ridiculousness’ as the revealing characteristic of our civilisation, as it sits on the edge of the abyss, seriously – perhaps even with bitter seriousness. Politicians like to say that ‘the situation is serious, but not hopeless.’ Not I – a composer should refrain from speaking – but my Marche says: ‘The situation is hopeless, but not serious.’” It is the kind of work that sits well with a young talented band of musicians in its defiance, rowdiness and in the way it lurches from one effect to another. Lachenmann is renowned for finding new ways to create sound and this work provides plenty of opportunities for musicians to venture into his idiosyncratic soundscape.

The concert began with a work written around 1597 and ended with one from 2018. In between we heard the inevitable slice of Beethoven and a great deal of variety. If this concert is any indication, we can look forward to some outstanding music making in 2020. The young musicians of ANAM are fortunate to have such excellent resident teachers and visiting musicians. As Nick Deutsch conducted the Lachenmann he must have been delighted that the first concert of his final year of tenure at ANAM had begun so splendidly. We listeners certainly were. ANAM continues to add lustre to Melbourne’s reputation as The Cultural Capital of Australia and deserves continuing generous support.

Image courtesy of ANAM publicity.

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Heather Leviston attended ANAM Opening Concert: Awakening presented at the South Melbourne Town Hall on March 7, 2020.

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