Max Bruch is remembered primarily for his much-loved Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, of 1867, one of the great violin concerti in the repertoire, and ASO Artist-in-Association Emily Sun’s performance of it was eagerly anticipated.

The concerto is unusual in that the first Allegro moderato movement is a prelude and the second Adagio movement, which immediately follows, forms the centrepiece of the concerto.

The quietly mournful opening passages of the first movement portend the dramatic announcement that follows, and right from the first bars, Sun created magic with her eloquent rendering of the movement’s lush melodies. In the emotionally-charged second movement, she gave a finely nuanced, passionate and at times heart-rending performance.

In the rousing and intense Finale: Allegro energico Sun again demonstrated her technical mastery in a bravura performance. Sun and visiting conductor Shiyeon Sung combined wonderfully, bringing out the romantic character of the Bruch, a work which contrasted with the atmospheric feel of the other works on the program.

In response to overwhelming audience demand, Sun gave an encore — the lighthearted but no less demanding ¡Si Señor! by violinist and composer Alexey Igudesman. One of many of his solo violin showpieces, it requires extended techniques such as plucking with fingers of the lefthand while bowing.

Shiyeon Sung conducts the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in Horizons, Adelaide Town Hall. Photo © Saige Prime

The concert opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27 (first performed in 1828), which was inspired by the poems Calm at Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Calm at Sea begins with these lines:

Silence deep rules o’er the waters,

⁠Calmly slumbering lies the main,

While the sailor views with trouble

⁠Nought but one vast level plain.

The work opens with quietly shimmering strings that develop a musical line that seems stalled. After a time, a flute passage heralds a fresh breeze and the music gains pace and energy as the wind picks up.

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is ultimately a joyous orchestral work that concludes triumphantly with a brass fanfare as the ship is greeted at port. The work highlights our relationship with the sea and our dependence on the forces of nature, a theme that returns in the final work on the program, Debussy’s La mer.

Following the interval, the ASO gave us Sofia Gubaidulina’s (born 1931) Märchenpoem / Fairytale Poem (1971) for an orchestral ensemble that includes piano, harp, marimba and vibraphone, all of which create wonderful effects.

Märchenpoem was inspired by the fairy tale The Little Piece of Chalk by the Czech writer Miloš Mazourek (1926–2002), a contemporary of Gubaidulina’s, and she refers to the story to allegorise life under an oppressive government.

The chalk is used to write lessons on blackboards, but it dreams of drawing castles, gardens and pavilions by the sea. A child finds the chalk and uses it to draw such things, and the story thus metaphorises the hope of escape from controlling ideology, an escape that Gubaidulina herself sought. She was a musical innovator and her work is a liberation from conventional musical form.

Musically, The Little Piece of Chalk is a delightful piece suggesting a daydream. The instrumental voices create wondrous images — lots of tonal colour and shifting dynamics, slow and arhythmic. The voice of the vibraphone is especially ethereal and enchanting, suggesting magic, and the work concludes with a pause to permit personal reflection.

Shiyeon Sung, Emily Sun and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in Horizons, Adelaide Town Hall. Photo © Saige Prime

The concert concluded with a magnificent performance of Claude Debussy’s La mer (1903-1905), which is often described as impressionistic because of its departure from Romanticism and its evocation of Impressionist painting. In fact, Debussy was inspired by Hokusai’s woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831), which also inspired the French Impressionists. Hokusai’s print shows a small boat about to be swamped by a gigantic wave, a contrasting image to that of the becalmed ship in Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.

The opening passage of La mer suggests an endless vista of empty, lonely ocean, and the work is a musical evocation of the rolling sea in all its moods. The work’s full title is La mer, trois esquisses symphoniques pour orchestre and Debussy gave descriptive titles to each of the three movements to suggest scenes that listeners might visualise: From Dawn to Noon on the Sea, Play of the Waves and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea.

The orchestration, which includes two harps and extensive percussion, is richly colourful, and the wind whips up in the third movement in a stormy manner that recalls Hokusai’s print. The ASO gave a magnificent performance, and the all-important woodwinds were outstanding.

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