I have a problem. I’ve heard the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra play now on five occasions and keep waiting for a wrong note, an error in tempo, or creakiness in the strings but they just don’t occur. Is there a better council funded orchestra in the world I ask myself? Of course the orchestra is made up of seasoned devoted performers, none more so than first bassoonist John Cran, who is ninety one years of age.
After the usual inspirational introduction by principal conductor Nicholas Milton, we heard resident composer Nigel Westlake’s Cudmirrah Fanfare, familiar to many as introductory music to Radio National. Catchy, with the composer’s frequent devotion to percussion, here including two xylophones, it was all too short.
Married couple Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles are well known to many as half of the Goldner Quartet, the most renowned chamber group in Australian history. It’s not surprising that they wish to test new frontiers and what better medium than Brahms’ Concerto for violin and cello in A minor. This work has given rise to an enormous amount of comment and speculation. Certainly, he wrote it partly as an effort to reconciliate with his old friend Joachim after they had argued over a personal matter. It has been said also that it has references to one of Joachim’s favourite works, Giovanni Viotti’s 22nd violin concerto but any resemblance is structural only and Brahms was not given to copying other composers’ works. Brahms was able to combine his feelings for Joachim with the request from his fellow cellist Robert Haussmann for a cello Concerto by joining the two instruments and using their huge combined range including many sections where the one instrument takes over from the other without break in upward and downward passages. It is fascinating but perplexing to read contemporary criticisms of musical works, witness famous adverse ones of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto and Mahler’s first symphony. Various critics described this concerto as “unapproachable, joyless, mechanical, cold and tedious”. It didn’t help that the composer himself described it as whimsical and a folly. To me, from the moment I first heard it in my teens, it is the exact opposite of all those adjectives and flows with natural beauty and tunefulness.
Dimity and Julian, playing with scores as is the custom in this complex work, displayed supreme accuracy and huge depth of feeling. From the dramatic opening with unusually placed cadenzas to the lilting second theme, there was a sustained vibrancy and energy. The divine second movement includes difficult passages for the wind section and they were handled with aplomb. There was a lively rhythm to the last movement with its introductory theme which thankfully never seems to end. This was Brahms last orchestral work and what a swan song! Credit to the conductor and soloists alike and followed by an appropriate accolade from a packed house.
Brahms, having been part of the jury which awarded Antonin Dvôrak an Austrian Composition prize recommended him to his publisher, Simrock and this helped to set the Czech composer’s career which progressed in leaps and bounds. Dvôrak visited London to great acclaim no less than eight times, although this might have been to indulge his favourite hobby of train-spotting rather than to compose! His European career was inhibited by financial restraints and an anti-Czech feeling in the Prussian countries although he continued to have strong ties to his origins. He was lured to New York in 1893 by a tempting offer to direct the National Conservatory of Music. Financial problems continued to dog him and the crash of 1893 caused his salary to be halved but he did receive a commission to compose a new symphony. This he did during a visit to a Bohemian community in Spillsville, Iowa and he handed the finished work titled “From the New World” to Hungarian conductor Anton Seidel to be premiered by the New York Philharmonic. There has been much controversy about the influence of American folk culture on the work which became an outstanding success and Dvôrak’s best known work. The composer himself admitted the influence however and the second theme of the first movement clearly is based on the folk tune “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. To me, the whole work has an American rather than Slavic character in stark contrast to his other symphonies.
The work starts with a pastoral theme but soon becomes more outspoken with, as in the Brahms work, numerous tuneful themes. The famous cor anglais solo in the second movement was impeccably and sensitively handled by Joshua Ning while the intricate accompanying woodwind was also well-received. Again, the composer admitted the influence of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. The brass section comes to the fore in the last two movements and again performed superbly. I wonder if the clear reference in the Scherzo to the same movement of Beethoven’s Choral was intentional or subliminal. Another similarity to that work is in the references in the final movement to earlier themes, the “Sweet Chariot” one in particular although the movement ends with a Mahlerian ” False Ending ” and jazzy arpeggios. I know of no other Dvôrak works that employs these features. The work has certainly stood the test of time, I haven’t mentioned the string section but again it was difficult to find any fault under the conductor’s excellent guidance and verve.
An exhilarating evening helped by excellent acoustics and a attentive audience. And if that wasn’t enough we were awarded with a favourite encore, namely Brahms Hungarian Dance No 5 to send us home singing.