‘Forceful and compelling’ music

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ANU Orchestra in Llewellyn Hall. Photo: Rob Kennedy.

Music / ANU Orchestra in Concert, Llewellyn Hall, ANU. October 28. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY.

AN empty concert hall is a desperately lonely place, but not last night (October 28) with the new ANU Orchestra performing for the first time in Llewellyn Hall.

Assoc Prof Kim Cunio, head of the School of Music, spoke before the concert. He talked about the emotional toll for staff and students while getting this new orchestra through COVID-19 and into their first-ever concert while staying together as a community.

Cunio also presented piano teacher and long-time opera identity Colleen Rae-Gerrard with a gift for her many years of work with the School of Music upon her retirement. Cunio too welcomed John Painter AM, former director of the Canberra School of Music as the patron of the ANU Orchestra.

With the orchestra spread further apart and the brass section in the aisles of the auditorium, the volume and the spatial depth of music noticeably changed, and sounded better than normal. They placed the horns to the left and the rest of the brass to the right of the audience. Not that there were audience members down near them, but their sound was more distinguishable.

Conductor Max McBride.

Fittingly, the “Academic Festival Overture” by Brahms, opened the concert. Conductor Max McBride stood on a specially erected platform placed before the front of the stage. He led as always with clear direction, strength and a welcoming approach. The quality of the playing, particularly from the strings and woodwinds, stood out. The efforts of the brass players featured even though there were a few nerves from some at first.

For Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No.2”, soloist Ronan Apcar, who is also a composer, played without sheet music. This feisty music did not seem to challenge his abilities. Hearing live orchestral music for the first time in such a while was a bit daunting, but not for this soloist or the orchestra. They performed this forceful and compelling music with authority and determination. The distinctive Russian sound of Shostakovich’s music was worth waiting seven months to hear live.

Apcar handled the entire work with relaxed confidence. He played the laconic second movement with all the held-back subtlety that it owns and deserves. After extended applause, Apcar encored with a work that showed the inner workings of Shostakovich’s troubled times with one of his Preludes.

With no interval, to help with social distancing requirements, Dvorak’s “Symphony No.8” followed. The tone colours of this superbly written and orchestrated work was a delight to hear live, and especially so by this quality orchestra. From the delicate woodwind splashes to the full orchestral sound, this powerful piece rang out strongly.

With restrictions easing up all the time, Australians will soon be able to come to Canberra to hear just how good the ANU Orchestra sounds. More soon, please.

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