Review / Sultry saxophone sounds dance with the orchestra

music / ‘ActewAGL Llewellyn Series ‘, Canberra Symphony Orchestra, at Llewellyn Hall, September 5. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN

WHEN a concert program includes “Fanfare for the Common Man”, “Bolero” and “Symphonie fantastique”, it’s bound to have wide audience appeal. 

Nick Milton

And, when it’s played as well as it was by CSO that appeal certainly doubles. The musically-satisfied audience bubbled away excitedly about the marvellous evening of entertainment as they filed out from Llewellyn Hall. 

Strict percussion then solid brass set the rhythmic pattern for Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare”, which heralded a French composer dominated program, selected as a celebration of the 100th anniversary year of the death of Claude Debussy. It was his “Rhapsody for Alto saxophone and Orchestra” which ushered in Nick Russoniello, a wonderfully gifted young Australian player.

Well dynamically controlled strings created a terrific atmosphere as Nick then charmed with a rich, clean tone which rode easily over the orchestra. The mood was quite sultry as the saxophone danced in quite a Spanish style backed by absolutely accurate oboe and flute playing and delicate, precise interplay with the entire orchestra.

The Milhaud “Scaramouche: Suite for saxophone and orchestra” was more zestful than sultry with folk song, lyrical sentimentality and a samba represented in its three movements. It allowed Russoniello an opportunity to display his astounding technical dexterity and his fine dynamic contrast and control.

It was exciting!

Unusually for the concert soloist, Russoniello then took a place within the orchestra to play one of the saxophone parts in Ravel’s “Bolero”.   Whilst audiences absolutely love its relentless rhythm and ever so slow build in intensity, orchestras, traditionally, don’t really enjoy playing the piece.   

That was not at all evident on this occasion. I have never heard such a wonderfully controlled start to the work. Percussionist Veronica Bailey commenced the snare drum pattern, which endures throughout, with the softest sound imaginable. It was hardly audible and just perfect as gradually all join in with the simple melody and musical tension builds to an explosive ending. All individual solos were played particularly well and intonation throughout was absolutely spot on.

Tight and disciplined string playing was again responsible for creation of appropriate atmosphere to commence the Berlioz “Symphonie fantastique”. The gentle and delicate opening is very exposed but every entry was played with total confidence and competence. This symphony is more about expressing emotions rather than painting pictures but it was quite impossible not to imagine being at a grand ball as the bright, happy waltz swirled about with delightful cohesion.

The slow and quite spooky “In the Fields” movement features a duet between cor anglais and oboe but, unusually, the oboe plays from off-stage. In its creation of the rural setting the sound of the double reed instruments was hauntingly eerie. “March to the Scaffold” was exact, triumphant and well controlled by conductor Nicholas Milton as he guided his 75 players through this work of quite epic proportions.

The sustained applause at concerts end certainly summed up the evening – fantastique!

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