The National Capital Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Weiss. Photo by Peter Hislop
THE National Capital Orchestra’s first concert of its 2018 season featured a world premiere performance of a work completed in 2017 by a young female composer.

That programming decision alone marks Leonard Weiss and his reinvigorated NCO as a force to be reckoned with.

We live in a society now that is reshaped by community voices, community effort. And the musical world, once dominated by the predominantly male elite, is not immune.

The great dinosaurs of Australian concert music should learn from last night’s soloists, Matt Withers and Cal Henshaw, who posed for selfies with the public in the foyer of Llewellyn Hall – and from Weiss, who urged us to like NCO’s Facebook page, before delivering a stellar concert. The age of the dinosaur has passed.

“Zodiac Animali”, a new work by Jessica Wells, is a Mussorgsky-like orchestral suite based on the 10 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Wells adopts a programmatic style, evoking galloping horses, meandering snakes and plodding oxen. An array of subtle orchestral gestures is paired with quasi-dodecaphonic language and Stravinsky inspired gestures. NCO performed this difficult work with humour and sensitivity. “Zodiac Animali”, in its language and style, recalls an earlier era of grand program music, perhaps inspired by the composer’s experience writing for films.

The middle of the program was devoted to the Spanish guitar, with performances of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 1939 Guitar Concerto and Rodrigo’s famous Concierto Madrigal.

Matt Withers revealed an exquisite tonal range in Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s neo-Classical cadenzas, producing bell-like upper notes and a perfectly controlled expanse of phrasing. His understated ornamentation and agility over arpeggiated gestures was remarkable. Weiss drew rich dynamic colours from the orchestra and brought another level of artistry to the work through his tasteful use of rubato.

Cal Henshaw joined the orchestra for Rodrigo’s 1967 Concierto Madrigal. Henshaw and Withers performed with such close ensemble, that they seemed to articulate as a single voice rather than a concertino. Early tuning issues were quickly overcome as the orchestral variations moved from military utterations to Flamenco, bird calls, Spanish Nationalistic tropes and the internal dramaturgy of late Romanticism. Henshaw brought elegant woody timbres and an artistic sense of timing.

NCO had the last word of the evening, with Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1887 Capriccio Espagnol, one of the most iconic Russian works of its period. Beginning with assertive tambourine, Rimsky-Korsakov unveils interleaved orchestral textures, building to a dramatic fortissimo finale. This work showcased the talents of the orchestra, as a whole and as individual players.

Broad tutti strings were underpinned by an elegance of moving colour in wind, brass and percussion. Solo violin and flute interludes were punctuated by cadential timpani, snare and bass drum. Extended fanfares in brass were grand. The orchestral lines laughed, shouted, saluted, jumped up and danced–in accented grace notes, strummed violins, drum rolls and quasi cadenzas. And the audience forgot that this was a community orchestra we were hearing. As the last chord rang out into a half-full Llewellyn Hall, a single girl in a floral dress gave a standing ovation – I predict there will be more on their feet by the end of NCO’s season. 

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Ian Meikle, editor