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ASO: Virtuoso Violin with Sarah Chang


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It is with some trepidation that a critic enters the auditorium knowing the orchestra is playing one of their favourite works. Would the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra display the versatility, passion and creativity demanded by Mussorgsky’s wonderful Pictures at an Exhibition, a piece I have loved for years?  I need not have worried. The performance was superb!

But that is to begin at the end. The colourful and dramatic Pictures, played to the orchestration of Maurice Ravel, concluded an altogether marvellous concert of classical masterpieces under the baton of guest conductor Garry Walker. There is a lightness of touch to Walker’s conducting that can be heard in each moment of the music.

The evening’s star soloist was the dynamic Sarah Chang, a violinist of intimidating talent. Chang played two pieces: Bruch’s mighty First Violin Concerto and Ravel’s exciting Tzigane.

Incredibly, Chang played the Bruch to audition for the prestigious Juilliard School of Music when she was just five years old.  This is a rich piece, full of resonant winds and gutsy brass complemented by deft string-work.  And the Tzigane opens with a demanding solo that stretches the musicality of the violin. The piece was handled beautifully by Chang and the orchestra.

Chang struts and bends and slices her bow through the air like a sabre.

Chang is every inch the classical superstar. Wearing a marvellous evening gown reminiscent of a bejewelled mermaid, she was a huge presence on stage both musically and theatrically. A wider-than-usual space had been cleared between the first violin and the conductor to allow for her robust style of playing.  Not for her the demure stance of other violinists – Chang struts and bends and slices her bow through the air like a sabre. Her performances were rewarded with rapturous applause from the capacity audience, even if they couldn’t be coaxed into a well-deserved standing ovation.

Before Chang took to the stage, Walker led the ASO through the delightful Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Britten.  From the achingly delicate opening of Dawn to the drama of Storm, the ASO captured the emotions and the precision of this piece.

My only criticisms of Friday night’s concert are space-related concerns. The Adelaide Town Hall is a lovely venue but it is not ideal for the ASO.  It is certainly not big enough, either for the audience or the orchestra, and the acoustics are problematic. Every seat in the house was sold and the concert-goer next to me spoke of previously being seated behind pillars with poor sight lines. The ASO can do little in terms of audience development if there is no capacity in the venue.

The space constraints also mean the orchestra seating on the stage is overly cramped.  There is no room on the stage for raised seating, meaning most of the audience can see only the front rows of the strings.  The brass, wind and percussion sections are hidden from view; even the harp, so delightful in the Tzigane, was unseen.  There are musical concerns, too, with an inevitable loss of clarity in those sections due to their positioning at the back of stage.

There is no doubt that the ASO’s concert offering has improved markedly in the last few years, perhaps due to the artistic leadership of Simon Lord.  And it is good to see that there will be some performances at the Festival Theatre this year, allowing it to perform works from the canon for larger orchestras. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the orchestra had its own venue designed for classical performance? Now there’s a suggestion for this year’s arts budget!

Violin Virtuoso – the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Master Series Concert 1 – was performed at the Adelaide Town Hall on Friday and Saturday nights. The ASO’s next performance will be Last Night of the Proms, this Friday and Saturday at the Festival Theatre.


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