Review / Milton dances rhythm and music to life

music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra, ACTEWAGL Llewellyn Three, Llewellyn Theatre, July 18. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD  

Piers Lane, Dimity Hall, and Julian Smiles

I AM always intrigued by the Edwardian rituals and traditions of a orchestral concert. The black tie suits of the men, the black gowns of the female musicians with the conductor’s white tie and tails, an extra level of formal dress of another age.

Then there is the ritual tuning from the reference note of the oboe and the arrival of the conductor with shaking of hands and bowing. With a wave of the baton the sixty or more musicians launch into the music, all working together to create a unique sound which cannot be generated in any other way.

This was a concert of three long-form works for symphony orchestra that were not symphonies and were written at the beginning, towards the end (1880) and at the end of the 19th century. The performance opened with Brahms’ Academic  Festival Overture, op. 80, a large and noisy piece of music based around popular songs of the period. Conductor Nicholas Milton danced the music to life guiding every shift of rhythm or emphasis and ending with a flourish any rock guitar god would be proud of.

This was followed by the Concerto in C for piano, violin and cello, op 56 by Beethoven. This was written in 1804 for the virtuosic soloists of an orchestra owned by one of the Austrian Empire’s grand dukes and essentially puts a piano trio in front of a symphony orchestra. Half the orchestra’s wind and brass players left the stage for this piece, but the violin and cello did struggle to be clearly heard at times above the remaining orchestra. The soloists are given lots of virtuosic opportunities, which may have worked better with a smaller ensemble.

The final work was Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme, op 36, “Enigma”. These are 14 short pieces, no more than two or three minutes long and reflecting, in a musical manner, something of the personality or character of a number of Elgar’s friend and musical colleagues. The orchestra was tight and balanced bringing out Elgar’s melodic and distinctive string writing overlaid with brass and wind. A bonus encore was Elgar’s arrangement of “Land of Hope and Glory”, well known from the London Prom concert series over many decades. I did feel we should have all been standing for it. Perhaps not the most adventurous of programs, but well played and enjoyable.

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