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ANAM set to soar in 2014

by Heather Leviston

Classic Melbourne visited the wonderful Australian National Academy of Music to hear about plans and highlights for 2014, starting with a preview of ANAM’s opening concert. Heather Leviston was so impressed by the rehearsal she returned to the South Melbourne Town Hall to hear an outstanding performance.

Review: The Lark Ascending

Brett Dean conductor

Anne-Marie Johnson, violin

Howard Penny, Faculty, cello/director

ANAM Orchestra

7 March 2014

Four stars

(This review was originally filed for artsHub)

For their inaugural concert for 2014 the students of ANAM not only hit the ground running but also, like the so-appropriate headline work, soared as only a team of Australia’s most gifted young musicians could.

The programming itself was at once ambitious and thoughtful. The first half comprised Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ rapturous The Lark Ascending, initially written for violin and piano just before the outbreak of the catastrophic World War I, and Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony, composed in 2000 shortly after returning from Germany and being struck by the wonder and joy of birdsong as well as the threat of extinction being posed by rampant “civilization”. This juxtaposition was at once a celebration of nature and a warning of how precarious it is.

As winner of the 2013 ANAM concerto competition and a violinist of extensive experience, Anne-Marie Johnson gave an assured performance of Vaughan-Williams’ Romance. Looking the picture of youthful innocence, she brought sweet-toned accuracy and considerable feeling to her sensitive interpretation. A satisfying elasticity of tempo and dynamics from both soloist and orchestra added to the uplifting atmosphere and over-rode any imperfections in the way of orchestral unity and subtlety.

With Brett Dean conducting, the players were in an ideal position to have confidence that the intricacies and complexities of his Pastoral Symphony would be fully illuminated. Whilst there are moments of great beauty in this work, it made a powerful contrast to the purity of the lark and the gentle English countryside. Almost imperceptible murmurings of the violas at the beginning, suggesting an awakening Australian bush with its myriad birdcalls, were gradually followed by the strident outbursts of a mechanised urban jungle. A tremendous crescendo towards the end culminated in a dying drumbeat of lamentation.

The orchestra made the most of the opportunities furnished by Dean’s highly creative musical imagination and instrumentation, obviously relishing the opportunity to work with a composer of such eminence who is also their Resident Composer for 2014. Prior to the second half of the program, Brett Dean’s vital contribution to ANAM was recognized with a Lifetime Membership.

Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and Hindemith’s Kammermusik series is a thread running through ANAM’s 2014 program. Opening the second half of the concert with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 Howard Penny led a most accomplished group of nine string players, plus continuo. The very brisk tempo of the final movement enabled them to display an impressive virtuosity. There was also excitement aplenty to be found in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony, which made different kinds of musical demands on the players. It is also a work that makes certain demands on the audience.

Originally conceived as an opera, it found more ready acceptance in symphonic form. A work that promoted a hero (the famous Renaissance painter Mathis Nithardt), who rejected militarism in favour of art, was unacceptable to Nazism. Although the symphonic form follows a program, those in the audience unfamiliar with the opera may well have found it difficult to detect some of the connections between the music and the description of the three orchestral episodes. It would seem that Mary and Jesus must have enjoyed very rowdy serenading!

The brass players certainly made a terrific job of it, among some quieter interludes. The Entombment of Christ featured some attractive playing from the strings and some very lovely wind solos. One of the most astonishing moments for the evening came at the beginning of the last movement. It seemed impossible that such full, integrated tone and sheer volume of sound could come from such a comparatively small body of strings, ably led by Amy Brookman as Concertmaster. Excellent work from the percussion section brought the work and the concert to a triumphant close.

Given that almost half the students on the stage were new to ANAM and had only been playing as a body for a few days, the level of achievement was extraordinary. Even without these limitations, Friday night’s program demonstrated the outstanding level of talent and commitment that is ANAM – students, faculty and the organisation as a whole. An enthusiastic capacity audience indicated that these remarkable students and visionary leaders would have strong support well into the future.

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