Review / Concert calls on birds for inspiration

music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra. ActewAGL Llewellyn Series. March 29. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE.

BIRDS of the Arctic Circle, brisk country walks and ironic humour were the themes for this highly entertaining and varied concert. 

Daniel de Borah. Photo by Darren James.

The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, prolific in his creative output, died only last year. His creativity set a new benchmark in compositional innovation for his “Cantus Arcticus”, or “Concerto for Birds and Orchestra”, written in 1972 when he travelled to the Arctic Circle and recorded bird calls. Then he set music to them. The recorded bird calls are played during live performances.

Guest conductor, Jessica Cottis, an ANU School of Music graduate with an impressive international career, had superb control of the orchestra. Her highly expressive hands drew a great deal of lyricism from all sections, enhancing the bird calls beautifully, and evocative of the serenity, even loneliness, of the planet’s remotest climes.

Then it was Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No 1 in C minor” written at the height of Stalinist Russia, in 1933. He probably was lucky to get away with the ironic parodies, quotes from other composers, and even rebellious hints of jazz. There’s sardonic humour tinged with more than a little anger, too.

Scored for a string orchestra with piano and trumpet soloists, there was no luck involved in this performance. Trumpeter, Rainer Saville, brought in the emphasis of cheeky double, triple-tonguing and assertive “announcements” superbly.  

Daniel de Borah, probably Canberra’s favourite concert pianist, was brilliant. In his usual no-nonsense style he focussed his entire energy on drawing every emotion, expression and nuance from a difficult piece that demands broad-ranging interpretations.

The CSO backed up the soloists with the kind of sensitivity we’ve come to expect and Cottis created excellent balance and tightness, leaving enough space for the soloists to express themselves freely.

After interval it was Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F major” (Pastoral), written in 1808.  It’s often described as a “program” work; each of the five movement is based on a theme – arriving in the country, the scene by a brook, folk-dancing, a storm, and shepherds rejoicing after the storm.

In this performance Cottis took the work at a cracking pace, too fast actually, especially in the first movement, in which a stroll in the country became a gallop, and in the third, in which those dancing merrymakers must have been in a lather of sweat. Even so, the orchestra kept up with the conductor at every beat. But the tempi caused the occasional loss of tonal clarity.

In the other three movements, it was a different story. Cottis crafted all the “programmatic” elements such that the orchestra created a grand and colourful canvass for the mind’s eye. Balance, tone and expression were magnificent, culminating in a delightful end to this fascinating and enjoyable concert.

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