Pomp and gloom

17 October 2019

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Beethoven’s Eroica’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, October 11 ⋅
Review by Varnya Bromilow ⋅

If you’re lucky enough to find them, there are some pieces of music so personally transcendent, so transportative, that they seem to have been created with your specific ears in mind.  For me, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of these.  This means of course, that I can’t possibly describe the music to you.  But hang on, that’s my job.

Williams (1872-1958) had strong opinions about the English music of his time.  In short, he found it wanting and so set out to create his own “national music”, drawing on the folksongs of the past, as well as the Golden period of Tudor music and interweaving these with the Romantic stylings of his time.  The piece referred to in the title is from a 1567 hymn tune Tallis created for Psalm 2.  A little like the way Michael Nyman was to riff off Mozart’s melodies a century later, Williams transposes Tallis’ gorgeous vocal strains for strings.  The effect is a song of strings – the violin and the viola in a heavenly call and response that makes your heart burst. Williams intended the music to evoke the beauty of the British countryside (the word pastoral is used almost constantly to describe his music) but for this listener, with no such associations, the music is simply a step into the sublime.  As though he managed to distill all the tiny beauties and griefs of the world into 15 minutes.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the accomplished direction of guest conductor Douglas Boyd, (music director of L’Orchestre de chambre de Paris and artistic director of Garsington Opera), gave it their all.  Of particular note were genuinely extraordinary performances from concert master and violinist Laurence Jackson and associate principal violist Alex Brogan.

So for this reviewer in particular, Williams is a tough act to follow.  Luckily, Iain Grandage’s brand new work Orphee – Concerto for Cor Anglais is, to use an underused term in classical circles, an absolute humdinger. Grandage introduced the work with a piano accordion in tow – his punishment for the time needed to reset the stage for his own composition. Using his prop, he gave the audience a charming but perhaps slightly bewildering account of the work’s tonal similarities to Williams, whose work is a frequent inspiration for the Perth-born composer.  Grandage created the work as homage to his music professor, UWA Professor Emeritus David Tunley.  Tunley specialises in French Baroque and the Orphee concerto embraces this tradition with the criminally neglected cor anglais at its centre.

Where Williams is beatific and reassuring, nothing is as certain in Grandage’s world. The piece is gorgeous yes, but with a pervading sense of menace. The cor anglais was played with a sinuous fervour by the brilliant Leanne Glover, glittering in green. Trembling drums, a single bell, sliced across by a draught of strings. It felt ominous, the slightly mournful horn carried on a bed of dense strings, at times lushly beautiful, at others like a buzzing, frenzied cloud that brought bees to mind.  Grandage has an acute ear for melody and pacing – again and again we were brought back to the cor anglais’ pleading refrain, almost jazz-like at times.  The end result was a genuine triumph – a charged, evocative work that challenged as much as it delighted.

It was a special joy to witness the composer’s own response to this world premiere of his work, especially one so personally dedicated. Grandage, seated across the aisle from me, twisted his beard, leaning forward nervously, in response to the work’s more ambitious movements.  Wonderful too, to relish the prospect of a Perth Festival curated by an artist who seems as eager as he is accomplished.

And then there was the Beethoven.  Caveat – I’ve got Beethoven baggage.  More specifically, symphonic baggage. I’m not sure whether it stems from my horror of A Clockwork Orange or from sheer overexposure, but when I hear the crashing chords of any of his symphonies it’s all I can do to stop myself from keeling over in boredom.  In admitting this, I don’t mean to be contrary for the joy of contrariness. Beethoven’s contributions to Western music are perhaps unsurpassed, (with the possible exceptions of Mozart, Miles Davis and the Beatles) laying down formative melodies and musical structures that inform music of all varieties.  Maybe it’s because his symphonies are so ingrained in our musical imaginations that it’s difficult to find them interesting now? The bombast; the driving cadence; the building crescendo and then, the requisite moment of delicacy.  Listening to a Beethoven symphony is like slipping into a warm bath – you don’t do it because it’s exciting, you do it because you know exactly how it will feel and it’s lovely.

WASO performed Eroica (Symphony No. 3) with great verve.  The work (1802-1804) is often heralded as a stylistic dividing line between the Classical and Romantic periods, reflected in the different tonal flavours of the four movements.  Primarily, it’s a Classical work but there are generous hints of the incoming subtlety of the Romantic period – oh, the glorious strings early in the second movement! It’s almost like you can feel something more tender trying to escape from the heavy majesty. The players worked hard to extract every last gasp of pomp out of the score, under the feverish direction of Boyd, rousing them on towards the last grand notes.  And grand it was.

But ultimately, I tend to side with Charlie Brown’s famous curmudgeon Lucy.  In her words: “Beethoven…he’s not so great.”

Pictured top: Iain Grandage with cor anglais soloist Leanne Glover. Photo Rebecca Mansell. 

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Author —
Varnya Bromilow

Varnya Bromilow is a happy dilettante who has worked as a journalist, advocate, oral historian, teacher and train driver. She spent 15 years with the ABC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The West Australian and enjoys writing fiction. She loves guinea pigs and the thrill of a good slide.

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