Review / Glass’ music draws passionate images

Music / “Triol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” by Phillip Glass, Canberra Youth Orchestra and Gabi Sultana, Llewellyn Concert Hall. Saturday, June 24. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY

SOUNDING more like a national anthem than a piece of minimalist music, the opening of the “Triol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” by Phillip Glass, surprised, but as soon as the strings came in, there was that familiar sound of Glass. 

Photo by Peter Hislop.

This was a much more melodic Glass; the flowing swells from the strings and that strong sense of loss and despair in a lot of his music, whether played slow or fast, permeated the core of this piece, as it does in many of his works.

The always-cinematic sounds of Glass’s slower compositions hold their own in the musical world. The musical pictures he is able to conjure up can draw out the softest and most passionate images. This is the type of music that can silence the mind of the listener and let themselves be taken away by the pleasure of simply experiencing his distinct sound.

The long slow second movement, which covers many emotional qualities stood in strong contrasts to the almost circus-like music of the third movement. The carnival-style atmosphere coming from the piano made one feel like the circus had come to town.

Gabi Sultana who gave us a reflective performance throughout the Glass work, then let rip in a short encore piece by George Crumb. She ran up and down the keyboard in a flurry of movement and also played inside the piano, hitting the strings with her hands and fingers almost as loud as she did on the keyboard itself – it was breathtaking.

The colours that fill the opening measures of the first movement of Mahler’s “Symphony No 1”, cover almost every instrument of the entire orchestra. The quiet, but building first few minutes highlight a composer who shows that he knows how to write for an orchestra. The piece soon turns into a showcase of sounds, but, all done with an understated quality.

There are a clear call and response themes that go on between instruments throughout this symphony; it’s so prominent that it’s almost as though the composer wants each instrument to have an individual say.

The Canberra Youth Orchestra stands on their ability, and it’s refreshing to hear a youth orchestra take on and command a monumental work like Mahler’s first symphony. Under conductor Leonard Weiss, who directs without an excessive flamboyance, unless it’s required, keeps the group together with a clear and strong voice. The diversity of the orchestra is also strong. Four out of the five double bass players are women, and more than half the orchestra are female players.

Through the death-march like setting of the third movement, it is easy to see where Prokofiev may have been influenced by Mahler. Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé suite exhibits many similar qualities heard in this section.  The dramatic fourth movement, perhaps the most colourful, challenged some in the brass section, but this tremendous and complex piece of music highlights the possibilities of orchestral composition, to which this orchestra gave justice.

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