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CSO’s ‘gorgeous’ celebration of spring

Soprano Eleanor Lyons… “magnificent and flawless in her expression of the Strauss.” Photo:Martin Ollmann

Music / “Living Green”, Canberra Symphony Orchestra with Eleanor Lyons. At Llewellyn Hall November 23. Reviewed by SARAH EC BYRNE.

“LIVING Green”, a celebration of spring and all things vernal, was a gorgeous and fitting climax to the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 season at Llewellyn Hall under the expert and dynamic baton of conductor Jessica Cottis. 

Cottis is a joy to watch, physically living every note, and her spoken introductions to each piece are also a pleasure to listen to.

The program opened with Dvorak’s overture “In Nature’s Realm”, which was everything I want from Dvorak; lovely melodies and the uplifting sense of countryside and greenery so often found in his best work. A very pleasing start to the evening. This is why green is my favourite colour. 

The next, brief piece was the premiere of Louisa Trewartha’s “Weave Magic Secrets”, a trip for horns commissioned by the CSO especially to bridge the divide between the Dvorak and the next piece, the “Four Last Songs” of Richard Strauss. 

This mournful, discordant piece was played beautifully by Robert Johnson and Victoria Chatterly on French horn and Brett Page on bass trombone, spread widely across the stage, adding to the occasional starkness of the music, in which Trewartha’s fondness for brass and jazz influences were clearly evident. I was not convinced of the piece as a sequel to the Dvorak, but it was very effective as a segue to the Strauss.

Renowned soprano Eleanor Lyons was magnificent and flawless in her expression of the Strauss (“Spring”, “September”, “On Going to Sleep”, and “In Sunset’s Glow”), maintaining her sang froid through some overenthusiastic feedback from the back at the hall, and adeptly interpreting the phases of Strauss’s end-of-life reflection. What an absolutely glorious voice. 

The second half of the program brought out the remarkable Sibelius “Symphony No 7 in C”, with its revolutionary single movement of only 22 minutes. I was irresistibly reminded of Jenny Offil’s lovely novel “Weather” – the piece is not so much an arc of identifiable themes and movements, but a tapestry of wonderful moments forming a coherent whole. 

Although I want to single out the timpani (Timothy Brigden), giving us all the shades of light and dark and at times the only counterpoint to the strings, the whole orchestra worked together so seamlessly and with such conviction that to say any one musician stood out would not really be true or fair. The dynamic range Cottis invokes from her musicians is also a joy.

The final piece for the program – and the year – was Sibelius’s “Karelia Suite” (with its confusingly named first movement, “Intermezzo”). This is Sibelius at his most approachable, a perceptible mood-enhancer, verdant and evocative, and the perfect way to conclude the CSO’s year with a happy and satisfied audience.


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