Introducing a grandchild to an orchestral concert is a privilege available to grandparents, and you should try to make it a memorable one. Not that our grandchildren in Canberra have missed out on orchestral music, for we have taken all of them to concerts for kids in the past. But an evening one is special. For this grand-daughter, we thought, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Bolero’ concert would be ideal, as it would include Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, already familiar through Disney’s Fantasia, and Ravel’s Bolero. The Saint-Saens First Violin Concerto would be easily accessible, as would Debussy’s Clair de Lune. The premiere of Vincent Plush’s commission for the Centenary of Canberra was an unknown, but — who knows? — it might just hit the spot.
Geoffrey Simon, much better known as a conductor in London than in Australia, conducted the CSO, which was in fine form. ‘A great band,’ he called it in his little sermon towards the end of the evening, and indeed it is. Although each of the French orchestral works we heard last night was familiar to me, I had never heard any of them live, so each was a new experience. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice drew strong approval from our grand-daughter, and from us. It was crisply played, and Geoffrey Simon drew out the colour in the piece as well as its energy.
Our grand-daughter, at least as interested in fashion as in music, though she is learning the trumpet, had exclaimed with wonder and pleasure at the dresses of some of the violinists in the orchestra (we were sitting at the edge of Row E). Her ‘Wow!’ at the entry on stage of the soloist Emily Sun, dressed in full length mauve, could almost be heard on stage. And from the moment of Emily’s aggressive entry into the first movement of the Saint-Saens first concerto you knew that she was an extremely accomplished performer, though still very young. Indeed, I first saw her in the marvellous documentary ‘Mrs Carey’s Concert’ on the ABC a year or so ago, a film that made me weep.
That Saint-Saens violin concerto ought to be performed more often. It is full of melody, movement and magic, like so much of the composer’s work. I don’t know why he is not more highly regarded. He sits in the generally accepted second rank, alongside Richard Strauss (who accepted his placement there), perhaps because he is thought to be ‘facile’. Well, so is Mozart, who is in the first rank. Saint-Saens, like Dvorak (also in the first rank) makes melody and harmony seem effortless, and once said that music came out of him as naturally as apples come from apple trees. He did well in the ABC’s Top 100 French compositions last year, his Organ Symphony (my wife’s favourite) coming in at No.2, after Bizet’s Carmen. And he is one of the few French composers of the last 150 years who took the ‘German’ forms of symphony and concerto seriously.
Emily played the concerto with fire and sweetness, where each was required. I don’t know the music well enough to be able to spot why, but every now and then I thought that she and the orchestra were not quite in synch. Our grand-daughter liked it all, and gave another appreciative ‘Wow!’ for her dress as the soloist left the stage. That got us to ‘half-time’.
Then came the Vincent Plush piece, preceded by a disarming and funny introduction by the composer himself. He called it ‘a film score in search of a film’, because it was based on his attempt to find musical equivalents to the designs of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife and collaborator, Marion Mahoney. Well, it could certainly have been a film soundtrack, and my only wish was to have heard it again quickly so that I could get more deeply into it. I was sorry when it finished, which says something. At only eight minutes in length it could with advantage have been longer. When the composer left the stage he came to sit immediately in front of us, so that grand-daughterer met the composer. She was impressed, and she liked the music too.
By now she was getting a bit restless in her seat, being the wrong height for it, but settled into a more-or-less comfortable position as Clair de Lune came on, beautifully played, and a sonic transformation from the angular music of Plush (he did call it Secret Geometries). We told her that Ravel’s Bolero was the last piece, and that it wouldn’t be very long. Alas, the quiet, sweet beginning and the rhythmic repetition of the piece pushed her into slumber. Bolero grew louder and louder, and more frenzied, and finished with its great noisy descent. Great cheering. Increased slumber. The conductor left, and returned to even more applause. Nothing would wake our grand-daughter, to the amusement of the harpist and the pianist.
When we could finally get her to wake up, we asked her what she thought of it. ‘Great!’ she replied, enthusiastically. It was, too.
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[…] This time I had two grandchildren, my grand-daughter searching for the harp which had been in front of her at the last concert. No harp! Maybe it’ll come later, I said, trying to remember the orchestration of the Mussorgsky. I had explained that overtures were to get everyone used to the music, and to warm up the orchestra, and the Shostakovitch did both very well. He wrote it in a few days at the request of the conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre, and it has something of the flavour of the Glinka overture I had in mind for my first imaginary concert. […]