Adelaide Festival

Adelaide Festival Review: Fantastical Journeys

Richly satisfying music-making

Richly satisfying music-making

Presented by: Jennifer Koh, Emilia Hoving and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed: 18 March, 2023

Take an internationally-renowned Korean-American concert violinist, a Finnish conductor born in the ‘nineties, and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Programme a Finnish tone poem, the Australian premiere of a violin concerto written two years ago, and a Russian symphonic suite. Shake well and serve. This recipe really works. In fact, tonight’s Town Hall audience went wild over it.

Finnish conductor Emilia Hoving is in charge of our local orchestra. Hoving proves to be a musically sensitive, intelligent conductor, sufficiently confident to give soloists their head whilst retaining command of the overall shape and pace. Her tempi are excellent, and she indicates clearly and without undue fuss. Her ability to work with the ASO is evidenced by the consistent quality of their playing.

Opening item was Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ descriptive tone poem, The Oceanides.
Evoking the majesty of the open sea and the playfulness of its sea-nymph inhabitants (called “oceanides” by Homer), it starts with an ominous rumble of double basses, skips to a flurry of flutes, and we’re on our nautical way. Hoving never lets the forward impulse sag. This is far better than your average ‘programme music’. Although not played as often as those of his works inspired by Finnish folk music, this Sibelius is warm, rich and confident, and the ASO handles its dynamic breadth and surging tempi beautifully.

Australian premieres of recently-written work are occasions in themselves. The National Symphony Orchestra (Washington DC), the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and BBC Radio 3, with support by ARCO Collaborative, commissioned American composer Missy Mazzoli to write Violin Concerto (Procession) for Jennifer Koh. Friends Koh and Mazzoli have been working together over the last ten years or so; this concerto is the most recent product of their collaborations. Written in 2021, partly as a response to the devastation of COVID19 worldwide, this work of five short, frequently conjoined, movements explores little topics like disease, death, healing and life.

Koh, resplendent in fluoro cerise hair and a halter-neck blue brocade gown, is sufficiently authoritative, both as musician and emotional interpreter of Mazzoli’s work, to make sense of this shamanistic, ritual-based composition. It’s all spirals and incantations, exorcisms and a tad of Bach, together with a centrepiece cadenza to remember. The violin’s journey is filled with glissandi, attack strokes, killer arpeggios, bravura double-stopping and silences. Mazzoli’s orchestral scoring is creative, rich and innovative, punctuated by pizzicati and string slaps. The concerto finishes with a bang – not anything like an apologetic whimper.

Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Opus 35, by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, rounded out the programme. For seasoned concertgoers, this qualifies as “an oldie but a goodie”. For audience members unaccustomed to the artform, its lush orchestration and beautiful melodies make it readily accessible. This opportunity to show off solo playing from amongst the orchestra members serves to remind Adelaide audiences that our orchestra contains excellent musicians. Cast in the role of Scheherazade herself (the sultan’s wife who tells intriguing stories for 1,001 nights in order to postpone her threatened execution) is Guest Concertmaster Elizabeth Layton. Her brilliant solo violin work leads us through this four-part work from start to finish. Bassoon, flute , ‘cello and clarinet voices each get time in the solo spotlight. Whether sultry and seductive or quietly shimmering or galloping headlong at full voice, the orchestra maintains a satisfying tonal balance throughout. It also demonstrates an ability to play quieter dynamic levels without letting the tempo sag. Perhaps this excellence of playing is partly due to Hoving’s conducting. Perhaps it’s simply a result of people who love music and appreciate working with each other. Whatever the cause, it’s great for us out here in the audience.

Incidentally, if you’ve never been to an orchestral concert, or if it’s been a while since you’ve been to one, let me explain. Quite a lot of musicians – four footy teams plus umpires – sit or stand on stage. Each one has an analogue instrument. (Yes, kids – if there’s a power outage, they can all still play.) The live sound profile of an orchestra is far removed from the MP3 and MP4 we have become accustomed to on phones, laptops and smart TVs. This sound is punch-you-in-the-gut good. And under Hoving, that’s precisely what the ASO achieved in tonight’s concert.

Reviewed by Pat H. Wilson

Photo credit: Tim Standing

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall
Season: Season ended

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