Review / CSO’s ‘magnificent’ concert of firsts

music / Canberra Symphony Orchestra Recital Series, with Julian Smiles and Dimity Hall, Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest, July 15. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

Julian Smiles and Dimity Hall.

CELLIST, Julian Smiles, described this very enjoyable and varied recital as a “concert of firsts”, not so much of “first timers”, although there was the treat of a world premiere, but more one of a first in a series, or first in a style or even a first, as in “best”.

Canberra-born-and-bred Smiles, who has an impressive bio as a soloist, orchestral player and a founding member of the much-lauded Goldner String Quartet, began the program with the first of JS Bach’s six suites for cello. A little unsettled in the first two movements with an occasional squeak and some lack of clarity, Smiles hit his straps in the remaining four, giving the 300-year old work beautiful modern expression and phrasing, creating a luscious smoothness in the sarabande, and concluding assuredly with the delightfully lively gigue.

Written for two flutes in 1990, but then arranged for cello and violin, amongst other instrumental combinations, “Ecstatic Dance” by Australian composer, Ross Edwards, who turns 75 in December, was another first, in that it marked the start of Edwards’ celebrated “Maninya” compositional style.  

Smiles’ wife and equally-lauded violinist, Dimity Hall, (they met “across a crowded Australian Chamber Orchestra”) joined Smiles on stage for this lively dance that keeps dancers and musicians alike on their toes, written in twos and threes. The complex but delightful piece was putty in their hands, synching perfectly, and creating vivid mind’s-eye images of light and nimble pirouetting through the many exchanges of theme.

Another first was the Suite No 1 for solo cello by the Swiss-born American composer, Ernest Bloch, written in 1956, just three years before his death. Across all four movements to this work, Smiles really shone. There was passion and intensity, with exquisite expression and warm velvet tones from beginning to end. He clearly is very connected to this music; it was a highlight of the recital.

Then came the world premiere, a work for cello and violin by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson. He gave Smiles and Hall the score to “One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight” only on June 30 – “an end-of-financial-year special”, Smiles called it – leaving them barely two weeks to practise it.

Its relentless, driving rhythm at the start and finish gives it very much a hoedown feel. The first of two middle sections is quite jazzy, almost like something Gershwin might have written, with the other being a plucked and bowed “conversation” between the two players, requiring seamless timing precision. Hall and Smiles performed this exciting work brilliantly, drawing very enthusiastic applause from the capacity audience.

The final work on the program was another first. Smiles called Ravel’s “Sonata for Violin and Cello” a work that is “top of the tree for this combination of instruments, or very near to it”.  In four movements, the work largely does away with harmonies and focusses on melodic structure, founded on alternating major and minor thirds. Each instrument often has its own melody line, weaving in and out with and complementing the other. Then the piece takes off in a single melody line, with the instruments exchanging places with such smoothness and precision that they become one with an extended range. Smiles and Hall mesmerised their awed and hushed audience with playing that would have had the composer in a similar state of bliss.

It was a truly magnificent finish to a superb concert.

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