★★★½☆ Alondra de la Parra and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra deliver a night of Latin rhythms and urban cool.

Hamer Hall, Melbourne
April 14, 2016

Day two of the inaugural BBC Proms Australia, and the turn of Queensland Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Alondra de la Parra, to take the platform at Mebourne’s Hamer Hall, delivering an evening of feisty Latin rhythms and urban cool.

Largely, all five events of this brief Aussie Proms season seem to be similarly angled towards a lighter tone of voice, apparently in a bid to tempt new concertgoers who might be scared away by more imposing repertoire. However, this programme revealed an important lesson: having an open mind can light the path to rewarding discoveries, for both the veteran and the novice music lover. 

Of course, it’s no secret that classical music suffers from an image problem, seen by the uninitiated as the entertainment of the affluent, the dull or the elderly. Regardless of how grossly undeserved this reputation is, stripping away some of these irritating stereotypes is a holy grail that programmers all over the world have been chasing for years, but one tactic in particular is arguably the most divisive: crossover.

As has been the case since time immemorial, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and indeed classical crossover has always had one problematic sticking point – while it may well pull in new punters, the purists are set running in the opposite direction. I myself will put my hand up now as one of the sticklers for tradition, so my scepticism was high ahead of the Melbourne premiere of a newly expanded, full orchestral arrangement of Gordon Hamilton’s collaboration with beat box royalty Tom Thum, Thum Prints.

I have a confession to make: I dearly wanted not to enjoy this performance. Aside from its apparently desperate ploy to lend some street cred to the not very street credible, this piece’s cringe-inducing description – A concerto Contradition for beatboxer and orchestra – was enough to raise my hackles. I expected the result to be a tedious misfire, but I’m big enough to admit when my instincts are off, and boy was I wrong about this piece.

As Thum Prints unfolded I became aware that (in spite of my prejudices) my feet were tapping, my head was bobbing and my face was smiling. Thum Prints is an artfully conceived, personality packed synergy between a 21st-century vocal magician, as disciplined and accomplished as any classically trained opera singer, and a superbly judged musical vernacular from Hamilton, blending traditionally conceived orchestral textures with more hard-edged gestures. It’s wildly entertaining, innovative, brilliantly unconventional and yet never overly irreverent. If only all crossover was as insightful and undiluted as this excellent piece.

Before I recieved my slice of humble pie however, it was the turn of the evening’s less experienced audience members to be surprised. Following the opening bonbon – a rousing but workmanlike rendition of George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – Venezuelan pianist Sergio Tiempo offered music by one of South America’s most creative, but sorely neglected, composers, Alberto Ginastera. The Piano Concerto No. 1, composed in the early 1960s, is easily the most challenging piece of this entire Proms series. Its turbulent dissonances, that snake unpredictably from stark, agonised pointillism to densely layered expressionism, present a sound-world that could well be confronting for many, but the seduction of live performance can often transform a listener’s appreciation of a piece. Given the shouts of approval following the final crushing chord of this concerto, I think it’s fair to say that Ginestera trumped Gershwin for popularity in this instance – a perfect example of why programmers needn’t dumb down.

The strength of the audience’s reaction is little wonder given the blinding fireworks this piece detonates. The soloist’s part is merciless in its demands, but Tiempo not only faces this challenge head-on, he is dauntless in his control and sensitivity of this music, while allowing occasional flashes of dangerous savagery to flare up, like some sulphurous, volcanic explosion.

Equally unforgiving is the orchestral writing, which veers from technically difficult to downright sadistic at times. Some of the more unidiomatic figurations in the strings were perhaps a little too muddy and at times the orchestra seemed to be clinging to the soloist’s thunderous charge by its fingertips, but even with these blemishes, hearing Ginastera’s Concerto performed with such insight and vigour by Tiempo was a thrill.

De la Parra is an equally astonishing presence on the podium, conducting with a truly luminous charisma, as was particularly evident in the orchestra’s most accomplished performance of the night, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. If the QSO had seemed a touch reluctant in the Concerto, this piece marked a paradigm shift away from the curdling density of Ginestera’s modernism, and into a luxuriant and lyrical emotion that proved far more flattering for this ensemble.

The Bernstein provided a valuable chance for these musicians to show their mettle in repertoire they clearly felt closer to than the rest of this programme, but the bitter-sweet desolation in the final moments of this piece would not have been a suitable cadence to end this otherwise upbeat display. Courtesy of a cheeky encore of Marquez’s Danzon No. 2 (with added beatbox obligato), the audience were released into the crisp autumn night with a Tango infused spring in their step. 

The BBC Proms Australia continues until April 16.


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