Keene delivers double delight

17 July 2023

Virtuoso John Keene leads the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra through an exhilarating concert with more than a touch of theatre, writes Stewart Smith.

Fremantle Chamber Orchestra & John Keene 
Redemptorist Monastery, 16 July 2023 

Hearing a double bass concerto is almost as rare as seeing an elephant fly, and ordinarily the prospect of the former spectacle, if I’m to be honest, promises little in listening pleasure.   

But enter the brilliant John Keene, virtuoso of the bass, concerto soloist and conductor, and what might have been something of a spectator sport becomes music making that is exhilarating, witty and often poignant.   

In addition to Vanhal’s double bass concerto, the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra, in the excellent acoustics of the Redemptorist Monastery in North Perth, presents selections from Bach’s Art of Fugue, Mozart’s sparkling 29th Symphony and a new work by New York-based WA composer Michael Salvatore Grebla.   

Art of Fugue, especially when heard in its original version for solo harpsichord, is hardly easy listening, but Keene’s judicious reimagining of Bach’s heady counterpoint as a three-movement suite – incorporating sounds and styles diametrically opposed to those of Bach’s time – makes for an absorbing concert experience.   

The first movement, aided by Keene’s natural and expressive conducting, is poised, stylised, and beautifully phrased.  As Keene explains in his introduction, the second movement is played slower than normal, designed to evoke the spirit of Shostakovich (Keene could have gone further, however, both in terms of tempo and of string tone).  

The cadenzas are particularly notable, not just for their virtuosity, but for their moments of reflective space and exquisite musical poetry. 

The final movement, with its striking string pizzicato, keeps us firmly in the 20th century and moments of swung slap bass – channelling the Jacques Loussier Trio’s famous Bach recordings – effortlessly transport us to a Parisian jazz bar.  The coup de théâtre, however, occurs at the halfway point when the players, in their best Swingle Singers impersonation, begin singing the parts they are playing.  It is mesmerising, clever and fun. 

Grebla’s unashamedly tonal and neo-romantic Sfidare is both accessible and meaningful.  The work is bookended by Grebla’s best music: a deliberate channelling of the opening gesture of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, dissolving into music of great depth and beauty.  The core of the work, however, suffers from a surfeit of musical ideas and here matters are not helped by several unconvincing sectional joins.  Sfidare is a reworking of Grebla’s first string quartet, and this performance marks its world premiere. 

The Fremantle Chamber Orchestra, under the indefatigable Hans Hug, made a wise move in appointing Keene as principal conductor.  Since arriving in Perth in 2019 as the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal double bass player, Keene has quickly established himself as a soloist, orchestral and chamber player, conductor and educator, operating in each sphere at the highest level.   

With his back to the orchestra, Keene, in tandem with Rebecca Glorie’s impeccable direction, effortlessly guides the players in Vanhal’s concerto for double bass.  Harmonics, double stops, fast scales and high-register playing are delivered with consummate ease and always to the adornment of the music.  The cadenzas are particularly notable, not just for their virtuosity, but for their moments of reflective space and exquisite musical poetry. 

The concert ends with Mozart’s effervescent 29th Symphony.  The orchestra is superb, aided by outstanding string principals and some of the best high horn playing you will ever hear (bravi to Rob Gladstones and Dorée Dixon).   

Now in its 19th year, Fremantle Chamber Orchestra has a loyal following and is a gem in the state’s musical landscape. It deserves our patronage and to be supported by all arts funding bodies.   

See Fremantle Chamber Orchestra’s website for more information.

Pictured top: John Keene is a soloist, orchestral and chamber player, conductor and educator operating at the highest level. Photo supplied

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Author —
Stewart Smith

Stewart Smith is a specialist in historical performance practice at the WA Academy of Performing Arts and he has performed, recorded and published widely in the field. At the park he enjoys the seesaw though, sadly, does not always find it easy to find a suitable counterbalance.

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