With a dose of light-hearted humour, Orchestra Unwrapped delivered in good measure what it advertised: the ASO members gave a convincing account of their more relaxed selves by letting their hair down, unbuttoning their shirts and taking themselves a little less seriously with this performance of a handful of crowd favourites.

Previously known as Classics Unwrapped and hosted by conductor Guy Noble since their inception in 2015, these concerts present an easy entry to the world of orchestral music via lighter works and familiar theme tunes from film and TV. In this first instalment of the ASO’s 2023 Showcase Series, Noble presented audiences with what might be described as an “introduction to the orchestra” for newcomers, while offering some substantial works for more seasoned orchestra-goers.

The conductor is well-known in these family-friendly concerts for his animated quips, and he drew laughter on this occasion with his witty wisecracks, as well as a few magic tricks.

The theme of the night was magic, brought through stories of mystery, sorcery and intrigue.

The show presented a clutch of pieces from Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, namely Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. To the delight of all, the magic theme went even further than the music with the appearance of Noble’s “apprentice” Ricky The Rat, in the form of dancer Gioia Girolamo. Suitably costumed for the role she played, she performed various antics on stage, as well as dancing a very passable ballet routine in the March from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

This was the first of some, quite literally, cheesy moments, including the presentation of cheese instead of flowers for Ricky and the delivery of a message for Noble by an owl on wires. The audience responded happily to the fun of it all.

Light-hearted clowning always help make performances like this more appealing for younger audiences – and there were many kids with their parents at this concert.

Notably, Orchestra Unwrapped featured the ASO’s new artist-in-association for 2023, violinist Emily Sun. She is a younger, Australian-born artist who has been making a big name for herself of late, and some may recognise her from her performance of Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” with the orchestra in September of last year.

Sun’s sweet performance of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs: Meditation was particularly enchanting. There was a synchronicity between the orchestra and her performance that had the audience totally captivated. She allowed the tone of her instrument to grow and sing through each note, and seemed to revel in the result.

Sun’s performance of Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy on Themes of Bizet, Op. 25, enchanted, with dancing lines high up in the stratosphere and the percussive and punchy bottom end of her instrument. She took a more playful approach in Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34, where her light touch made easy work of the abundant double-stops.

Earlier, this Disney-inspired program gave us Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as arranged by Leopold Stokowski, which in fact is the orchestration he contributed to the 1940 Fantasia. This sprawling version of Bach’s original organ work, with its themes shared across the orchestra, transforms into a thoroughly cinematic experience. Noble and the ASO took full advantage of Stokowski’s drastically slower tempos to create a suitable sense of grandeur.

The audience was treated to the full sound of the orchestra in Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, offering a good reminder as to why this work has continued to delight listeners for more than 100 years with its highly imaginative orchestration. The ASO played it particularly finely, allowing all its moody and playful elements to shine.

“The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35, featured the wonderful playing of ASO concertmaster Cameron Hill. He and the orchestra were in full control, and the audience was enthralled throughout this superbly undulating piece.

This work began a string-heavy part of the program with Massenet’s Thaïs: Meditation and Tchaikovsky’s Valse-Scherzo, Op. 34, which left the brass sections looking a little bored with their many bars rest.

Johansson’s arrangement of Joe Hisaishi’s theme from the Japanese Studio Ghibli animated film Howl’s Moving Castle, Merry-Go-Round of Life, was the shortest, yet most modern, piece in this program, and it offered a good contrast to the string-heavy, traditionally classical works that filled most of Orchestra Unwrapped. Its light sprinkling of jazz-style sounds offered a welcome stylistic change.

Concluding this fun concert were the familiar sounds of John Williams’ themes from Harry Potter: Hedwig’s Theme and Harry’s Wondrous World. Alongside the tinkling sounds of the celeste in the main theme, the pirouetting strings and grand timbre of French horns pair to create a bewitching spell in one of Williams’ most famous scores. The Harry Potter music is a perennial crowd-favourite, and perhaps a taste of what’s to come with the ASO’s second Showcase Series show in August, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in Concert, in which Nicholas Buc will be conducting.

Another encore, Manuel de Falla’s Danza ritual del Fuego, or Ritual Fire Dance, offered a stirring cinematic end to the show, with accompanying pyrotechnics on either side of the stage. Finishing it off with indoor fireworks was this concert’s ultimate magic trick and even made some audience members jump.

Regrettably, the program lacked any representation from women composers. This was a disappointment considering the previously concerted efforts made by the ASO to celebrate the work of women composers in its She Speaks festival of 2021 and 2022.

Nevertheless, Orchestra Unwrapped was an enjoyable concert and a loosening of the reins for the ASO; one noticed a few imperfections at times, but any mishaps were brushed off with a laugh. A cheerful dive into magic certainly has its charms.

Shannon Pearce is the third recipient of the Helpmann Academy InReview Mentorship. She is working with experienced writers Graham Strahle and Samela Harris to write a series of articles for publication in InReview.

Fireworks were the ultimate magic trick at Orchestra Unwrapped. Photo: Claudio Raschella

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