Give an orchestra some genuinely tough music and a real taskmaster, and they play better. This is the way it has been with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in several concerts this year, no more so than when Dmitri Matvienko led them in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony in May. So it was again this time under another young visiting conductor, Alpesh Chauhan, in an unusual program that took the orchestra well outside its comfort zone.

For the audience, that meant the prospect of hearing some different and challenging music, although there were no guarantees that people would either take to, or even like, this program. Billed rather hopefully as ‘Tragedy to Triumph’, it was actually unremittingly tragic for the most part, offering no simple grounds for optimism – but great art is often like that.

Lili Boulanger’s D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening) is a haunting tone poem that moves in restless waves between nostalgia and anguish. It was impossible to take one’s mind away from the fact that this was the last piece she wrote before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 24. Only once before have we heard the ASO play Lili Boulanger’s music (as far as I can remember), and that was D’un matin de Printemps in April 2021. Suffice to say that in post-Romantic French music, there is someone else’s music to love, not just Debussy’s – it is that beautiful.

By now one was admiring how very finely the ASO was playing. Despite the fact that many new players had been brought in for this concert, this was a lovely honed performance with big passages that caught one by surprise by their energy. Chauhan, as we’ve mentioned, is new to the ASO, and this brave Briton is one of the most exciting conductors we’ve seen in Adelaide in a long while. In the Boulanger and what was to follow, he made the ASO sound twice the orchestra.

When a new work is launched on the public for the first time, it is a test for audiences to figure out what it is ‘about’. Sometimes the clues are scant, but Paul Dean’s new Concerto for Horn and Orchestra makes its intentions clear from the outset that it relives and reflects upon Australia’s devastating bushfires of 2019-2020. Built into the fabric of its three movements are the personal experiences of firefighters and ordinary folk caught in the blazes.

It is an apocalyptic work, a contemporary Australian version of Dante’s Inferno. The horn solo represents the voice of heroes who are brave enough to fight, the orchestra being the encroaching, enveloping firestorm. Adelaide-born Andrew Bain, now one of the world’s leading horn players, was here for this performance, and one could not help but be struck by the forlorn loneliness of solos –  introspective, small of tone, and devoid of any of the crackling Straussian bravado one might have expected. Around him is first an eerie silence, then a distant rumble, and finally a thunderous cacophony as the fire rears up.

Complex in its sonority but disarmingly direct in meaning, Dean’s concerto serves as a gripping soundtrack to that black fire season of two years ago. It underscores our need to reassess the natural world and our place in it, realising that nature can become a hostile enemy.

Well, what a fabulous performance we had here. The drama was almost unbearable.

The smooth, connected mellowness of Bain’s playing held one’s attention throughout. It truly sounded less like the artifices of an instrument and more like a human voice. Just like Barry Tuckwell, to whom this concerto was dedicated, he has effectively reinvented the French horn – little wonder Bain has made it to the top as principal horn of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is reputedly John Williams’ favourite hornist when conducting his Star Wars film scores.

After this new and unfamiliar territory, one could only say that Shostakovich appeared like an old friend when his Symphony No.10 in E minor took up the second half – and that must be a first for an ASO concert. Not that this work is one to cosy up to, of course. Its grim, Soviet-era bleakness hardly allows for that, but the glory of his music expresses the stamina of the human spirit in surviving against the odds that reminds one of Mahler.

More than anything else perhaps, his symphonies depend on sharp contrasts and irony. Growling cellos and double basses set an ominous scene in the Tenth, against which hollow-sounding main themes gradually rise up but are left hanging. Clarinet and flute solos sound acutely vulnerable as the tension mounts and the full might of the orchestra lets loose in teeth-gritting climaxes.

Well, what a fabulous performance we had here. The drama was almost unbearable. The ASO was totally in harness under Chauhan, every note and phrase laden with meaning. Shostakovich has a way of escalating drama, building up the sound in solid blocks like Bruckner, and the ASO delivered this with precision and unbridled power. Chauhan has unique abilities that bring all this out abundantly: he connects with the players in a thoroughly physical manner, carving out phrases in the air like a sculptor and at times whipping up action like a horse trainer, stockman, or even a boxer. One was left in no doubt about the impact of this symphony. It was a staggering performance.

The ASO finds itself in a time of transition as it continues to hunt for a permanent conductor, concertmaster and now a new managing director. In this concert, we potentially had some of the answers. Chauhan is a phenomenal talent whom the orchestra should invite back at the very least. Sun Yi filled the role of guest concertmaster in fine fashion, and a many new players added lustre, among them Holly Piccoli on first violin and Joshua Batty on flute. Bravo to the lot of them.

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra played Tragedy to Triumph at the Adelaide Town Hall on Friday, August 12.

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