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ASO: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony


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In the buzz surrounding the beginning of the Adelaide Festival Centre’s 40th anniversary activities, it was fitting that the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra performed one of classical music’s most familiar and enduring pieces, “Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Opus 125)” – the same piece that was performed on its opening night in 1973. The performance was uplifting and memorable, a credit to both conductor Arvo Volmer and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with chorus.

The AFC was the country’s first capital city arts centre, opening before the Sydney Opera House, although it now stands in need of significant infrastructure improvements. Equivalents in Melbourne and Sydney eclipse it, and the 40th anniversary was just the right occasion for a call to fund refurbishment of the centre in order to capitalise on its proper role in a city of the arts.

Speeches ahead of the concert reminded us that Anthony Steele was in the chorus on the Adelaide Festival Centre’s first night, a role he reprised on the weekend as part of the 100-strong Adelaide Symphony Chorus, and that the only complete rendition of the Ring Cycle in Australia was performed in the AFC. The state premier who chose the centre’s site, Steele Hall, was present, as was the designing architect, John Morphett. The late Don Dunstan, we might presume, was there in spirit.

The April issue of ABC’s Limelight magazine rated the ASO as Australia’s second best symphony orchestra, highlighting its precision and adaptability but also concern about a perceived lack of distinctiveness and an inclination to quick tempi. That’s taking a long view, so what of this performance?

Arvo Volmer is rightly recognised for the resurgence of the ASO and, seen live, he must be the envy of air guitarists everywhere since he not only embodies the music but shapes it.

Volmer began by leading the orchestra through the world premiere of the specially composed “Fanfare Festiva – A Fanfare for the Next 40 Years”, by Adelaide-born Graham Koehne (head of composition at the Elder Conservatorium of Music). Its insistent martial beat underlined a spritely character, with a novel and engaging passage that featured strummed violins, but it was otherwise not particularly distinctive or arresting. Elmer Bernstein’s theme for The Magnificent Seven came to mind for style, though without the latter’s quiet middle section and subsequent development. Koehne has rightly established a reputation, but this is not among his better work.

The majesty of the “Choral”, as the 9th is known, is inherent in the composition but subject to interpretation, of course. It got off to a slightly shrill start, though the call and answer of horns and strings was well controlled. The symphony was pleasantly subtle and grand by turns, as if the orchestra was busy talking to itself and then to the audience. It succeeded. Variation in emotional textures suggested a character that was entertainingly ambiguous – smiling sweetly while picking a fight, and switching in an instant between delicacy and hints of violence – but the work remained integrated and sensible, with nothing rushed. Arvo Volmer is rightly recognised for the resurgence of the ASO and, seen live, he must be the envy of air guitarists everywhere since he not only embodies the music but shapes it. The antics in his physical relationship to the orchestra and its emerging sound are hypnotising.

The symphony was the first time a major composer incorporated voices, a signal achievement given Beethoven was deaf well before this. The final movement, “Ode to Joy”, based on Friedrich Schiller’s poem, celebrates friendship, love and brotherhood (and presumably sisterhood, too). It was ushered in by soft but clearly enunciated cello voicings which were progressively overlaid with other strings and other instruments, always maintaining clarity. The Adelaide Symphony Choir then came thrillingly to the fore. Featured vocalists at front of stage were the beautifully matched soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell, tenor Paul McMahon, and bass Stephen Bennett.

The overall effect was enthralling. Conductor, players, singers and, indeed, Adelaideans could all be rightly proud. What will they play at the AFC in 2053? Whatever else might be on the program, let’s hope it includes one more run of the “Choral”.





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