What a transformation there has been in the Ku-ring-Gai Philharmonic Orchestra. Gone are the creaky strings and hesitant woodwind entries resulting in an efficient and accurate unit. Perhaps its new principal home in the expanse of Chatswood Concourse has helped in this. Conductor Paul Terracini has been in charge for eighteen months and much of the credit must go to his enthusiasm. Paul has had a momentous career, starting as a trumpet player including as a soloist; he graduated to composing and conducting, his compositions having been played in concerts worldwide as well as in films.
We were treated to an intriguing and innovative programme, two works being new to myself. Aaron Copland is well known for his music containing strong American idioms, such as in “Appalachian Spring” and “Hoedown”. There isn’t a long stretch between the latter and the El Salon Mexico which he visited in the Thirties, describing in his autobiography the three halls for different standards of dress, especially footwear or the lack of it. The piece of the same title isn’t only a description of the dance hall but of Mexico and its people, and contains references to many local folk tunes. The work starts with a loud signature opening which punches out the composer’s identity; a quiet passage follows on the strings, which gradually evolves into clearly Mexican episodes with a climax in which the percussion (including Chinese Blocks) is prominent. The music weaves hither and thither continuing in its nationalistic identity with discordant slides and glissandos ending frenetically. An exhilarating way to start the evening.
Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F has tended to be overshadowed by its predecessor “Rhapsody in Blue” but it is in fact more typically Gershwinian in that, unlike the former, he constructed the orchestration himself. The soloist on this stormy evening was Robbin Reza, a home grown pianist who studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and graduated with First Class Honours as well as being awarded first prizes in the KPO Concerto competition and the ABC Young Performers. He then furthered his studies in Germany which he now follows at the Hochschule in Cologne. Away from music, he is addicted to fine tuning motor cars to an obsessive degree, particularly his own, while he also likes to work in his garden, particularly to relax him before performing. He certainly appeared relaxed in the Concerto which starts with a drumroll followed by a classical theme leading to the jazzy second subject laid out slowly and expressively by the soloist. Further episodes are more frenetic with jazz themes predominant and a lively coda based on the second theme. The Andante is more suggestive of “Blues”. Trumpet and violin solos precede the abrupt statement by the soloist which builds to a climax after several modulations. The Rondo Allegro introduces new themes with contrasting and varying rhythms and references to the themes from the first movement also ending as expected with a flourish. The soloist, who hadn’t performed the work before, was superb, handling the jazzy influence including syncopations expertly and infusing the work with his own interpretative ideas. Gershwin of course is a legend in combining jazz and classical styles and only his friend Ravel can rival him in this.
After the break, we were treated to two extracts from “Mer de Glacé” by Australian composer Richard Meale, best known for his opera “Voss”. This second opera is based on a work by David Malouf in which the poet Shelley meets Byron in Switzerland. The first excerpt, prelude “Lake Geneva”, was a sublime slow movement featuring woodwinds and strings, finishing with arpeggios on the harp. The second, “Village Dance”, is a lively jig featuring percussion and xylophone in particular, and the brass section in which the tuba was unusually prominent. Both pieces were particularly Australian in their musical character as is the custom of the composer, whose mantel was assumed later by Ross Edwards.
Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony represents an unusual departure by a composer whose music was largely conventional. He played the organ himself which partly explains his decision to include it in the scoring. No doubt Franz Liszt was delighted that such a work would be dedicated to him though he did not live to hear it. The slow introduction features a four note fragment which recurs throughout the work and is included in the first dramatic subject which is reminiscent of the beginning of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. This is followed by a lyrical theme in the major mode. Later on, after a quiet slower episode, the organ makes its entry almost imperceptibly and the music dies away, this being a substitute for the absent slow movement.
There followed substantial applause, which happily is no longer considered unacceptable. The nominal second movement starts with a forceful scherzo in which timpani and strings are prominent, followed by a trio section in which the woodwinds are augmented by rapid scales on the piano. A very quiet interlude ends with even faster runs on the piano and repeated notes on the oboe, presaging the sudden loud C major organ chord which begins a tumultuous Finale, which includes versions of the themes from the opening as well as new material, while the organ continues to exert its influence. The work ends with fanfares of triumph.
The organist, Mark Quarmby, the organist of St Andrew’s Cathedral, performed his small but essential part with panache. He played an organ engineered by Jim Clinch to represent the sound of an eighteenth century organ. Its volume and tone were impressive although the acoustics were fully tested by the forceful bass notes.
A packed hall showed its appreciation of a concert containing music for all seasons played excellently under expert direction and featuring memorable performances by the soloists – and not to forget Lewis Pastars on the tuba who I’m sure has never worked so hard! It was great to hear another council-funded orchestra perform so well – they play at least six concerts a year, half at this venue as well as their well-known concerto competition and I’d advise everyone to look at their programme.