Very Good Music

By August 24, 2012Music, Society

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.


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • barbara gilby says:

    Why do make the TSO comparison again? Its not a competition. The tso organisation employs around 70 people full time on a living wage while most cso players earn around $5-6K per annum for their work with the ochestra. If there were the political will, or a benefactor with $50mill. to spare, Canberra could have a full time orchestra to serve itsaudieces, school kids, local choirs and the region. Who knows, ballet, musicals and opera might happen more oftentoo. There are certainly many un- or underemployed wonderful young musicians in this country. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the concert. Best wishes.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I haven’t made a comparison with the TSO before. It is a fine orchestra. My comparison is between what is done for a State by the Commonwealth, and what is done for one of its Territories. Tasmania does very well from being a State, whereas the ACT gets very little from being a Territory. Its population will pass that of Tasmania in a decade or two, and that of the Australian Capital region is already equivalent.
      The reason we do not get that kind of funding for our orchestra has to do with the origins of the other major orchestras as creations of the ABC. You are right that what’s needed is political will.

  • barbara gilby says:

    Thanks Don. The tso comparison has been made many times by many people, if not by you. I preferr the comparison to be something like…
    Canberra resident; “Canberra is too small to have a full time orchestra”
    Me: “hobart has one and canberra and its region ( mostly in NSW) is better populated than tasmania.
    The problem with the $ comparison is that most people have no idea what a full time orchestra is or does and think $6 mill is a rort.

    I guess I’m hoping that at some point we might be comparing apples with apples.

    There is plenty of vested interest in maintaining the status quo. I, for example, would lose income if a full time orchestra were set up since I’d be unlikely to win an audition. That said, im a supporter of the idea. Im not so sure about others…….

    Finally, it’s somewhat sobering to try to think of a capital city in the developed world that doesn’t have a fulltime orchestra (other than ours).

    Long may your support of the arts continue.

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