Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez gave its name to this Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert and was probably the most popular item on the program. However, the soloist Xuefei Yang also performed a new guitar concerto by Tan Dun with conductor Benjamin Northey doing justice to works infused with romanticism and rhythm. The program comprised:
Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Tan Dun Guitar Concerto Australian Premiere
Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez
The first item Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun also afforded a pleasing prelude to a concert of contrasts. Ever reliable, Prudence Davis’s flute introduced the theme – coinciding unfortunately with the first very loud cough from the audience.
Two harps amplified the lush sound of this work and conductor Ben Northey skillfully drew out the dynamic contrasts from the orchestra supported well by musicians such as oboist Jeffrey Crellin. Our position in the circle was appreciated as we had a good view as well as sound of the elements that made up the piece. Dale Barltrop as leader had a charming solo for the re-entry of the flute that heralded a change of pace, before the pace slowed again and Northey achieved the languorous romantic mood suggested by the title of the piece and its instrumentation.
In a talk bridging the Debussy and the premiere of Tan Dun’s work, Northey talked about the contrasts that were to be expected. Tan Dun was on a journey of modernism Inspired by the Yi jing, he said, the converging worlds of East and West represented by the pipa and Spanish guitar. Many musicians would need to use their instruments in a different way, said Northey, for example, gongs would be sounded under water and pianist Amir Farid had to wield a Coke bottle inside the grand (while awkwardly juggling his score!)
The conductor himself was not exempt from the challenges, saying he was nervous about the requirement that he clap as his part of a duet with the soloist. He need not have worried. Northey has an innate sense of rhythm, which not only saw him give a credible version of a flamenco musician but also enabled him to direct the orchestra in rhythmically complex works. This was most important in the second concerto, Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez – but first was a very different work, the new Guitar Concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun.
Tan Dun has visited Australia several times, and is best known internationally for his film scores such as for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A Chinese New Year concert with the MSO this year saw the composer conduct two of his newer works, Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa and The Triple Resurrection – inspired by Wagner’s Ring Cycle. However, tonight’s Australian Premiere heralded a new departure, being unashamedly experimental in nature, even to its structure of five (not three) movements. The focus of attention was the soloist Xuefei Yang, with both her bright red gown and her guitar drawing attention, even on such a busy stage. After her initial “duet” with the conductor, Yang’s sound became absorbed into the overall orchestra, and perhaps unexpectedly, appeared to represent Western (Spanish) sound rather than the East. This was, of course, because of her instrument – on which she was a very skilled performer – but also her foot-stamping in a complex flamenco style.
Northey was hard put to stop the orchestra from descending into chaos as cacophony descended, only briefly interrupted by snatches of harmony and contrastingly, the sound of marching rather than dancing feet. The concerto deserves more than one hearing, as its complexity does not allow for sensible comment without further exploration. That the audience seemed very appreciative was a credit to Northey, the soloist and the orchestra, as the challenges were many, and appeared to be well met.
While Xuefei Yang showed the technique and mastery of her instrument that have made her one of China’s best-known guitarists, the sound produced was swamped by the orchestra, both in the Tan Dun work and the Rodrigo. In this well-loved concerto the guitar is truly the focus of the work, introducing the major themes and setting a lead for the orchestra to follow. So that the instrument did not achieve more power and resonance was disappointing. (I wondered if this impression was the more authentic, however, as it is so often heard in recordings with the benefit of amplification by a skilled sound engineer!).
The Rodrigo was nevertheless well received by the audience, as was the final item, Debussy’s Iberia. Where some had commented that Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun didn’t appear to belong in this program, this other Debussy work most certainly did. The sense of Spain had infused both concertos – and the work was a showpiece for the orchestra as Northey had them evoke the various scenes: castanets for the swirling streets, brass becoming quite subtle for the sounds of the night, a rousing tutti to finish. It seemed that the conductor was not the only one to discover his or her inner flamenco in this program!
Suzanne Yanko reviewed this concert at Hamer Hall on October 2.
The production picture was taken by Matt Irwin.