Llewellyn Hall, ANU, Canberra
May 2, 2018

In his debut outing with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, conductor Johannes Fritzsch quickly established a strong rapport. The orchestra seemed to enjoy playing under his baton, such was their freshness and vitality, made more so by an imaginative program, full of contrasts.

The concert started late because concertmaster, Barbara Jane Gilby, was caught up in a traffic jam on an arterial road from which, once committed, there is little chance of escape. She arrived on stage for the tune-up, wiping her brow. So, the first piece, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis probably was as calming for her as it was the audience.

Scored for large and small string orchestras, and a string quartet, this piece, also known as the Tallis Fantasia bridges 350 years, with Vaughan Williams arranging the third of eight hymn tunes Thomas Tallis wrote around 1567.

Tallis’s hymn would have been quite the strident piece, drawing as it did on Psalm 2 (“Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?”). But Vaughan Williams took the melody and turned it into a gentle, expressive piece with echo and organ effects, pizzicato punctuations, solo and sectional melody leads, a nice build-up of the melody through the quartet, and the graceful, luscious sound of a full string orchestra. Fritzsch drew exquisite tone and balance from the three ensembles (the quartet was drawn from the large orchestra), with the CSO strings savoring the sweeping motifs rising and falling gently on the wings of glorious expression and sensitivity.

Quite a contrast came as the orchestra re-jigged itself into its more customary array for the Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, by Czech composer, Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813).  Soloist Phoebe Russell very quickly put to bed any audience expectation of a lumbering double bass rumbling away in the bottom register for 20 minutes. In a truly brilliant performance, playing her 300-year-old instrument, Russell showed that the double bass (hers is slightly smaller than its modern cousin) has an extraordinary range and can be played with just as much nimbleness, agility, and lightness as a violin.

Standing at her instrument, Russell was totally at one with it, cuddling and caressing it such that it took on her own vibrant personality. She very clearly loves her instrument, and the feeling is mutual. Trills, mordents and turns, along with rapid note progressions literally from one end of the fingerboard to the other, and even beyond, were crystal clear and as thrilling to watch as the myriad tone colours to hear. Each of the three movements, including the Adagio movement, featured a cadenza towards the end, which gave Russell a chance to show her incomparable virtuosity, not only technically but expressively, too.

Maestro Fritzsch and the orchestra gave Russell superb support, with perfectly measured and understated volume levels when she was playing, and giving exactly the right amount of emphasis when she wasn’t.

Opening the second half was Australian composer Paul Stanhope’s chamber work for string orchestra, Morning Star, from 1992. It’s in three short sections, drawing on a melody from an Aboriginal clan in central Arnhem Land. The first starts off in a simple, wistful song-like melody from the cellos and builds through the violas and the second violins to the first violins. The second takes a brief motif and twists and turns it through a series of lively repetitions all around the orchestra. The third is a lively dance-like theme in weird 7/8 time. It’s quite a difficult work to play, with off-beat rhythms, syncopations, and entries, but the CSO, under the tight and precise control of Fritzsch rose to the challenge beautifully. The CSO strings certainly relished it.

The final work was Beethoven’s Symphony No 2, composed in 1802. He was 31 years old and had realised his deafness was permanent and worsening. Still, it’s a happy piece, one full of power and, in fact, innovation in that he tossed aside the usual thought of a minuet for the third movement and replaced it with a lively scherzo.

In this work, Maestro Fritzsch let the Orchestra fly. It was a spirited performance, but kept under tight, precise control all the way through. There were great contrasts in the first movement, warmth in the Larghetto, lively dancing in the scherzo, and full-on power in the fourth. The musicians, keeping a close eye on the conductor’s baton, created a blaze of colour to conclude a concert that marks the beginning of what surely will be a long association between the CSO and Johannes Fritzsch.

The concert is also performed tonight.