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Musical masterpieces full of twists, mystery and drama


Acclaimed British conductor Matthew Halls is excited to be returning to Adelaide for an ASO concert he says promises a colourful – at times enigmatic – program showcasing some of his favourite composers.

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Halls, who divides his time between homes in England and Canada, is artistic director of the Oregon Bach Festival and in the past year alone has conducted orchestras in Iceland, Austria, Germany, the US and Britain.

He was last in Adelaide in 2014 to conduct the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, and returns next week for its latest Master Series concert, Portraits & Variations, featuring Brahms’ Haydn Variations, Beethoven’s Prometheus: Overture, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and a new flute concerto from Australian composer Ian Munro.

Here, Halls reveals what he loves about the works, how he survives his gruelling schedule, and the carb hit that helps him prepare for a concert.

What do you love/admire about the pieces in this Master Series concert?

They’re all masterpieces in their own right. Three well-known and much-loved gems from the musical canon form the backbone of the program. Beethoven and Brahms (in fact, pretty much all composers beginning with the letter B!) have always been very close to my heart throughout my musical journey, and conducting Elgar always feels like “coming home”, wherever I happen to be in the world.

Add to this a relatively new and fascinating flute concerto by Ian Munro and I think we have the makings of an incredibly exciting and colourful program.

What does Brahms Haydn’s Variations mean to you?

The infectious wit and playfulness that seeps into the variations from the curiously quirky theme (the so-called “St Anthony Chorale”) continues to fascinate. The unexpected twists and turns and the gorgeous use of orchestral colours make this such a vibrant and easy work to listen to and enjoy. There is everything from dark melancholy through to explosive rhythmic outbursts.

Everything that makes Brahms such a great composer is to be found here, from the dizzyingly confusing cross-rhythms to the closely-wrought counterpoint. I never tire of dipping into this musical treasure trove.

The work has been described as having all of the twists and turns of a good story? Why do you think that is so?

I guess it all comes down to characterisation and Brahms’ keen sense of drama. Both elements are present throughout the score…

Elgar’s Enigma Variations has captivated audiences for more than 100 years. What makes the piece so enduring and such a powerful masterpiece?

It’s blissful music to study, perform and listen to. Immediately appealing and, like the Brahms, full of drama, wry humour and powerful musical expression.

Of course, there is the appeal of the “Enigma” itself that lends the work as a whole a sense of mystery and uniqueness. I know I’ve spent my own fair share of time (usually on long-haul flights!) pondering the secret code that apparently lurks in plain sight.

In the end, though, it’s the sense of reverence and respect in these character pieces or musical portraits that I find so moving. These are deeply personal musical sketches of people who were extremely important to the composer.

How many times have you conducted Enigma Variations? What is quintessentially English about the work?

I think I’ve conducted the Enigma Variations only three or four times, actually. Obviously it’s a work that I’ve known and studied since childhood – I remember as a chorister singing a choral arrangement of Nimrod and being absolutely bowled over by the power of that great climactic variation. As to what makes it quintessentially English…you’ll have to ask a non-English person. I couldn’t possibly comment!

Master Series 6 features Australian composer Ian Munro’s new contemporary flute concerto – why is it important for orchestras to be playing new work within their repertoire?

New music is, and always has been, the most exciting frontier in the music world. As satisfying as it might be to keep reviving the same historical works again and again, our curiosity should always get the better of us with regard to exploring the new and constantly evolving sound worlds of contemporary music.

The future of the art form lies in the hands of the many supremely talented living composers and, as musicians, we should be seeking every opportunity imaginable to bring new works to life.

You are recognised as a Baroque specialist – why did you choose to specialise in baroque works?

I’m humbled by this, but it is completely undeserved! This is one musical interest among many for me. I suppose I’ve always had a strong interest in the world of so-called Historically-Informed-Performance and I was lucky enough to play in some of those pioneering orchestras at the beginning of my career. However, I’ve never felt particularly comfortable with the concept of specialisation and just see it as one particular area of repertoire – among many – that I enjoy studying and performing.

You were last here in Adelaide for Handel’s Messiah. What are you looking forward to most about returning to Adelaide/ASO?

The wonderful musicians. It was such an enjoyable week preparing Messiah and I’m looking forward to collaborating with them again immensely.

How do you survive your gruelling travel schedule, and what can’t you live without on the road?

I have homes in the Peak District (Derbyshire, England) and Toronto, Canada. My wife and I tend to divide our time between the two, depending on where I’m working in any given month. The travel never gets any easier but I tend to block it out now and just look forward to the wheels hitting the tarmac.

I couldn’t survive without FaceTime. In fact, I’m not even sure now how we did it before this amazing technology existed. It allows me to spend quality time with my family and feel connected when I’ve been on the road for many weeks.

How do you prepare for concert day?

Always a long sleep in the afternoon and a bowl of pasta two hours before the concert. I used to live in Italy!

The ASO will present Portraits & Variations – Master Series 6 at the Adelaide Town Hall on August 11 and 12.

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