Cottis’ clear, confident direction makes an impact

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CSO artistic advisor Jessica Cottis conducting.

MUSIC / Canberra Symphony Orchestra, “Llewellyn One”, Llewellyn Hall, Wednesday, March 31. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN.

EXPECTATIONS of what musical treats the Canberra Symphony Orchestra might present in “Llewellyn One”, the first major subscription series concert for the year, probably did not include deadly sins, dance music for elephants, disco, Dixieland and doom metal alongside images of forests and gladiators. 

But such was the adventurous and innovative programming chosen by Jessica Cottis to formally mark her introduction in her new role as artistic advisor and conductor for the orchestra. What a way to make an impact!

Stravinsky wrote his “Circus Polka” as ballet music with the first performance in New York in 1942, featuring a cast of 50 elephants and 50 beautiful girls.

This was a big, brash and brassy way to commence proceedings, with a rare opportunity for the tuba (a magnificent, robust sound from Bjorn Pfeiffer which filled Llewellyn Hall) and the Max McBride-led bass section to showcase their considerable talents. Also prominent was precise musical dovetailing between French horn and clarinet.

Due to covid complications, the intended Korngold violin concerto needed to be substituted at the last minute, with the Sibelius “Symphony No5 in E Flat” chosen to fill the void. Cottis is a gifted speaker and the audience appreciated her descriptive synopsis of this grand work and her helpful hints of what particular sounds to listen out for in order to fully appreciate musical pictures of cloudy skies and glorious sunsets.

With her expansive and expressive conducting style, Cottis drew energetic and passionate playing from the orchestra with the most impressive dynamic control and contrast.

Strings were particularly tight in the syncopated rhythms and dance-like themes of the first movement, then produced exciting scurrying sounds of forest creatures at the start of the third.

Holly Harrison is a WA composer (and kit drummer) inspired by Lewis Carroll in her writing. Her “Fizzin’ Fury” explores the contrast between the fury side of punk, metal and progressive rock against the fizz of electronic dance music, disco and Dixieland jazz.

There were numerous listening highlights here, with bassoons and basses setting the scene with precise rhythmic accuracy in the opening “Man from Uncle”/”Mission Impossible”-like theme, then the always beautiful, crystal-clear flute sound of Teresa Rabe transforming and getting ‘down and dirty’ with a menacing, guttural growl.

Canberra soprano Lorina Gore.

Then off to the theatre with Kurt Weill’s “The Seven Deadly Sins”. The orchestra was joined by internationally renowned Canberra soprano, Lorina Gore, in the roles of Anna 1 and Anna 2 (a singer and a dancer) with a fine male vocal quartet of Dan Walker, Samuel Sakker, Charles Bogle and Adrian Tamburini (what a wonderfully powerful, rich bass voice) playing the role of her family.

The basic story is that Anna is sent off by her family on a seven-year journey to earn money. In each of seven different US cities, another deadly sin is encountered.

The text was thoughtfully provided in the program, which certainly enhanced the understanding of both story and music with imagery again strongly to the fore. There was no mistaking the strings creating “Anger” whilst the family turned barbershop quartet to convincingly sing of “Gluttony”. Gore was simply delightful as Anna, with her voice soaring effortlessly over the well-controlled orchestra. 

In her first appearance with CSO a year or so ago, Cottis made an immediate, most favourable, impression. This concert solidified that impression with the orchestra responding very well to her clear, clean and confident direction. 

The discerning CSO audience can be assured of continued fine playing during her tenure but will also be treated to thought-provoking, probably new or lesser-known, but always engaging, programming.

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