Llewellyn Hall, ANU, Canberra
September 5, 2018

While this concert of evocative orchestral music at Llewellyn Hall opened with the Fanfare for the Common Man by Copland, all other pieces were by French composers – and to celebrate the 100th anniversary year of the death of Claude Debussy, his Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. The Canberra Symphony Orchestra under conductor Nicholas Milton were joined by Australian saxophonist Nick Russoniello, who was soloist for two pieces and performed in the orchestra.

Copland’s inspiration for his Fanfare for the Common Man came from a 1942 speech during the Second World War, when the American Vice President Henry A. Wallace proclaimed the coming century to be that of the common man. Copland echoed that sentiment: “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” This piece has been used to speak for nature, sport, space exploration and humanity. The CSO made the music sound like it was right for all those occasions and more.

The atmospheric and cryptic Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra by Debussy is filled with his characteristic subtleties and vivid colours with that restless and swelling passion he is known for. Like a lot of Debussy’s music, this short work sounds like it is suspended in a constant mode of searching. If it’s looking for a home, it never finds one, but this is the beauty and diversity of Debussy’s music. The saxophone part seems to wander around the edges of the orchestra to state its presence, an expression all of its own. The overriding legato of the work adds much to its subtle style, while echoes of Debussy’s La mer filter through this piece. Russoniello stood out clearly over the orchestra and weaved his way in and out through the floating music. He crafted rich and vibrant tones while shaping a unifying balance that gelled the whole Rhapsody.

From the get-go, Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche: Suite for saxophone and orchestra, rushes, jumps and bounces along. The tunes rollick along at such a pace, it’s like listening to a recording set at double speed. Over the three movements, it does not stop entertaining, even in the animated slow section. This jazz-styled piece with its muted trumpets and trombones shifts to a Brazilieria in the final movement. It danced so infectiously that the conductor could not contain himself from swaying along. The CSO was smooth, lyrical and tight, as was Russoniello on his glittering sax.

Ravel’s Bolero capped off the first part of the concert with a dynamic performance from the CSO. The story of Bolero is a tune that passes from instrument to instrument. The build-up was balanced just right by the conductor. Milton maintained a strict tempo and queued each solo instrument and the sections to perfection. When the dramatic key change came, it hit with vigour and impacted on every person. The blaring finale saw the audience explode into extended cheering.

Symphonie fantastique, Op 14 by Hector Berlioz is made up of such confusing proportions that a reviewer in the French newspaper Figaro on December 7, 1830, in the variety column described it as “the most bizarre monstrosity one can possibly imagine.” Designed like a novel, the music in Symphonie fantastique is spirited, romantic, dance-like, dreamy and even deathly. It expresses the emotional turmoil of an artist’s idolisation for his lover.

This work is also of operatic proportions and written for a battery of percussion that gets to ear-piercing volumes. It opens with a slow musical daydream that is light and tender, which develops slightly, but the tonal variations are what stand out. Berlioz, the great orchestrator, threw every colour he could imagine into the mix for this fantastic symphony. However, the CSO could stand more players in the lower strings –  six celli do not fill the requirements of this 50-minute masterpiece.

The variations in style mark this work with originality. Composed in 1830, the freshness of its musical vocabulary at times sounds contemporary. The modern style is heard in settings such as where four timpanists are played against one oboist and two sets of tubular bells sound with a solo tuba. But, at the heart of this symphony is a full-throttled romantic yearning. This is a work that requires each player to watch with intent and perform at their peak, and everyone from the piccoloist to the conductor did just that. The flair at the booming end from the string section added to the dynamic quality of this monumental work that sits at the summit of the orchestral repertoire.

Another performance is scheduled for Thursday September 6 at 7.30pm, Llewellyn Hall, ANU


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