The queue stretched into the street as classical music lovers lined up to secure a good general admission seat for what has become an annual highlight: the opening concert of a season showcasing Australia’s elite young musicians on the verge of their professional life. Not only was it an exciting program of old and new works; it was a significant occasion when the role of Artistic Director passed from Paul Dean to Nick Deutsch.
Those hastening towards the front rows might have paused as they sighted a phalanx of percussion stretching across the front of the orchestra. On the other hand, the lineup of beautiful and intriguing instruments central to Danish composer Per Nørgård’s Percussion Concerto For a Change, invited closer inspection.
The title of the work could not have been more in tune with the nature of this concert; as well as the ANAM leadership handover, six alumni joined new and ongoing students while alumna, Kaylie Melville, was the solo percussionist for this powerful, exacting Australian premiere. With Nick Deutsch as oboe soloist for the world premiere of Paul Dean’s Oboe Concerto the sense of evolving connections was further reinforced.
Per Nørgård’s concerto comprises four movements inspired by the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching) where “64 states of being determine the full cycle of the phases of life”. It comes as no surprise then that the music encompasses mesmeric ritual and evocations of the mystical. Beginning with Thunder repeated, the Image of Shock, Melville unleashed what the composer referred to as “a vicious circle of claustrophobic, closed circuits” on the tom-toms. The inner movements are less violent and feature gentle bell-like sounds and delicate pluckings to produce ethereal, meditative effects. The final movement, Towards completion, Fire Over Water, was an absolute tour de force of percussion playing, demanding great reserves of stamina. It was almost as if Melville herself had become the Sacrificial Maiden with a frenzy of sustained drumming, hypnotic enough to put anybody in an altered state of consciousness. Her slender, lithe frame swayed to driving rhythms with unerring commitment. The drumming of feet that accompanied the enthusiastic applause was a fitting acknowledgment of her immense skill and musicianship.
After a welcome breather as the setup was reorganised Paul Dean’s Oboe Concerto was given a compelling reading. The piercing high note from the oboe heralded Dean’s belief (according to the program notes) that “the concerto is one person, one instrument pitted against an orchestra”. Coming after the Nørgård onslaught, such an emphasis on musical aggression was a little unfortunate and did not really allow the audience to fully appreciate its merits. This was despite the virtuoso performance by Nick Deutsch, who was required to play in the oboe’s highest register through most of the concerto in order to stand out from the orchestra.
Given Dean’s role as educator, his desire to involve the whole orchestra is understandable; he has shown exemplary leadership in his quest to inspire ANAM students, push their technical limits and expand their horizons. The work is full of interest in its development of musical ideas and instrumental colourings, but after the strident climax of strings and brass a cadenza seemed to promise a reprieve from all the noise and tension. But no; even there the oboe had to have an accompanying snare drum – albeit as a lovely personal tribute to the snare drum used in Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto cadenza, which Dean must have played many times. A much more relaxed second movement adagio provided some gorgeous lyricism and opulent tone from the oboe and strings, especially in the lower register, which is enhanced by the hall’s acoustic.
Just as an urgent climax was reached the South Melbourne Town Hall clock struck eight in such an uncanny way that Dean might have written it into his score; it seemed to be right on cue the split second after the fortissimo high note of the oboe had finished. After a respectful pause as the clock had its few seconds in the sun, a flurry of winds was soon joined by strings and others as aggressive power reinstated itself. The program notes describe the joy and celebration of the closing finale, but the concluding thud sounded as though something had been felled (the oboe?) in this uneven contest.
For all its character and participation in ANAM’s music making, the South Melbourne Town Hall has its drawbacks. On occasions such as these, it seems as though ANAM has outgrown its venue. Lack of air-conditioning or any kind of breeze in hot weather can be quite stressful for at least some members of an audience. With most of the orchestra on the same level as the audience vision is limited and the full orchestral sound is very loud indeed.
Although the playing of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 was truly admirable and began with those wonderful deep pulsating strings, the repeated climaxes of full orchestra at times became a little too much of a good thing. Nevertheless, rich string tone made the most of all those uplifting, expansive melodies and there was some excellent work from the principal players, especially a very promising Anthony Frantz on trumpet. The general effect was one of gifted musicians playing from the heart.
So the concert ended on a celebratory note afforded by both Sibelius and the quality of the performance. Under the clear and gracefully shaped guidance of young Spanish conductor Antonio Méndez, the ANAM Orchestra was inspired to demonstrate once again the inestimable value of this institution to our cultural life. In his welcoming speech Nick Deutsch reminded us of the apocryphal, but nonetheless valid, words of Plato: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything”. Exactly.
The picture is of ANAM’s new director, oboist Nick Deutsch.
Heather Leviston attended the Opening Concert of the Australian Academy of Music Orchestra at South Melbourne Town Hall on March