A day after the announcement of the new rule that you must have a PhD to teach music at the ANU School of Music I was able to enjoy a first-class concert by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, a band that just gets better and better. Playing in an orchestra like this one is what music performance studies are all about: it is the intended outcome for many of the students.
I don’t want to go on and on about that — rather, in this essay, to say something about the joys of live music on a grand scale. I have been seriously listening to music since 1954, when I bought my first LP, and I now have a passing knowledge of the mainstream Western classical repertoire. I would love to say that I have been to thousands of concerts, too, but it wouldn’t be true. The only time I could easily attend lots of symphony concerts (and did) was in London in 1975. Otherwise, like most other music-lovers, I am limited to what occurs in our city, and the number of symphony concerts available to us is not large.
There is something special about being there, no matter how good your sound system at home is. This concert began with a work I had not heard before, Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry, for orchestra and didgeridoo. I have heard a good deal of Peter Sculthorpe’s music, and like it. In this work the didgeridoo has a long solo episode at the beginning, and then underlines much of the music thereafter. It continues to amaze me that musicians like William Barton and (in this concert) Mark Atkins can make such sounds, and convey such moods, from what is a hollowed tree-branch. Earth Cry is powerful and absorbing work, and I would like to hear it again (I tend to say this after hearing each new piece of his).
Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K.364, is a work I know very well, and was one of the first pieces of Mozart’s orchestral music that I had on record (I think it was the other side of Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik). Knowing it well did not, however, prepare me for the superb work of the evening’s two soloists, violinist Ji Won Kim and violist Roger Benedict. She reminded me of Menuhin, whom I heard play one of the Mozart violin concertos in London. Benedict’s viola was mellow and precise, and what we were given was a duet, even a conversation, for two solo instruments with an orchestral accompaniment, each of the participants assisting the other.
Being there enables you to watch the way the melody, the figure, is transferred from one instrument to the other. The orchestra, reduced to the kind of ensemble Mozart would have had in Salzburg, was flawless. I had never heard this work live before. It was a joy, and immeasurably more absorbing than any of the versions I have on record or disk.
We finished with Holst’s The Planets, another work I know well but have never heard in concert. What a great, thrilling sound it was! And how well the orchestra played it. In the last episode, ‘Neptune the mystic’, the orchestra (more than 70 on stage) were assisted by The Resonants choir, who were heard through an access door, and perhaps moved further and further away as their last phrase, repeated again and again, grew fainter until it died.
It is sometimes a bore to have to go outside on a stormy night, find a parking place, and avoid the puddles on the way to the concert hall. On a night like this one, however, the magic was there, from the beginning to the very end. And for any grumpy, who wants to complain that the CSO should be good, since millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money goes to support it, I can only say that I wish it were true. The CSO gets just $100,000 of Commonwealth funding, while the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra gets $6 million.