Preeminent in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s excellent 2023 program has been its Symphony Series. These thoughtful and finely balanced concerts at the Adelaide Town Hall have been led by the very best visiting conductors and soloists.
The series has been especially noted for introducing many under-acknowledged women composers and for showcasing lesser-known but important and engaging works that enrich the orchestral repertoire and have sparked new directions in composition.
For the final concert in this series, entitled Ecstasy, the ASO programmed Jessie Montgomery’s Banner, the second work of hers to be performed by the ASO this year. Her Starburst featured in their Vitality concerts in July.
Montgomery’s Banner was commissioned in 2014 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner which became America’s national anthem. As an African American, Montgomery felt that the anthem didn’t apply to her, and she wrote a piece to represent today’s multi-cultural society.
Banner is composed from elements of 12 different songs, many drawn from neighbouring countries and including work songs, freedom songs and anthems, particularly the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice by James Weldon Johnson, which is characterised by a prominent bass line weaving through the composition.
Scored for string quartet and ensemble, Banner begins with a dramatic flourish and there are dissonant passages, abrupt changes of key and tempo, and competing lines as the elements of the chosen songs are heard. The string quartet stands out as the central voice.
The work requires the use of extended techniques, for example to create the sound of the wind blowing. There are programmatic passages where orchestra members stamp their feet, and the bass players slap their instruments rhythmically. Overall, Banner represents the often tumultuous co-existence of disparate communities and cultures. As well as being a powerful metaphor for our times, Montgomery’s work is a thoroughly engaging piece of orchestral writing.
In contrast with Banner, Erich Korngold’s sublime Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1945) might be seen to characterise American culture very differently.
Korngold had established himself in the early 20th century as one of Europe’s finest young composers. Escaping Nazi Germany and moving to Hollywood in 1934, he produced numerous film scores, and is now celebrated as one of the great film score composers.
Korngold’s violin concerto of 1945 marked a return to classical composition. The concerto drew on elements of previous film scores and some critics suggested it was too cinematic and thus not to be taken seriously. But the concerto is much more complex and elaborate than a typical film score and, while it might elicit visual imagery in the mind of the listener, it does not need to be accompanied by moving images.
Under guest conductor Chloé van Soeterstède’s deft leadership, violinist Anthony Marwood gave a superb performance of the Korngold, bringing out the depth and complexity of the violin writing and lifting the concerto to the heights of the violin concerto form. The cadenza was especially delightful.
Korngold’s film scores had raised the standard of cinematic composition and blurred the distinction between cinematic and concert hall music. Though imbued with a modernist flavour, Korngold’s concerto has a strongly Romantic character that has enduring appeal to concert and cinema audiences alike.
Still elated from hearing the Korngold, we then heard Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, the musical evocation of Stephane Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune. Opening with a dreamy solo flute, with the horn and the harp amplifying its hypnotic character, it is regarded as the quintessential work of musical impressionism, and its sensuousness is felt as much as heard. The quiet ending leaves the listener in a state of reverie.
Beneath its shimmering, otherworldly beauty, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is a unique and complex piece, with chromaticism, tritone intervals and a fluid structure that lacked conventional thematic development and departed from traditional orchestral form. It is often cited as the precursor to so much twentieth century composition.
The feature orchestral work in this concert was Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940), the ASO again celebrating Rachmaninov’s 150th anniversary, having performed all four of his piano concertos earlier in the year.
At times bursting with energy and vitality and at times ruminative, the Symphonic Dances represents the culmination of Rachmaninov’s compositional career and was completed towards the end of his life.
Each of the three dances is much more than a dance and is an extended, multi-faceted symphonic work. Elements of earlier works, notably his first symphony which was derided by critics, appear in the Symphonic Dances.
In the first movement, marked Non allegro, a main theme is voiced by an alto saxophone, an unusual choice of instrument. The second Andante movement is in waltz time, though this waltz is tinged with irony and perhaps also flavoured with regret for a lost past. The final movement, which is marked Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai come prima – Allegro vivace, takes the listener on a reflectively emotional journey before concluding optimistically.
Chloé van Soeterstède and the ASO gave a scintillating performance of the Symphonic Dances. The performances by the ASO winds and brass were exceptional, as they have been all year. This was an outstanding concert to wrap up a fine symphonic season for the ASO.