South Melbourne Town Hall
Once again, rumours have begun to circulate about the parlous situation of the National Academy, whose administrators seem fated to plead on a regular basis with Canberra for funds to continue their activities. Late last year, the news came that the Australian National University is willing to house the Academy when its lease arrangements with the South Melbourne Town Hall come up for renewal in 2017 – a move that has its proponents but many more detractors, fortunately. Peter Garrett, as Minister for the Arts, proposed closing ANAM in 2008 because he saw the institution as elitist; what he wanted in its place remained unclear. But the thinking behind the minister’s proposal showed both a meanness (or absence) of spirit and a totally inadequate comprehension of what it takes to make a real musician. And that lack of insight has lasted well beyond the first Rudd ministry.
If you want to see why ANAM is both important and successful, all you have to do is attend a single concert or recital to understand what is being achieved. Not everything you hear will be easy listening, but anything performed by this body’s young instrumentalists stands several aesthetic strata above the products that emanated from Garrett during his musical career-of-sorts. Saturday night was a sterling example of where the Academy’s players are situated with a half-challenging (for the audience) night’s work of a near-contemporary concerto for percussion, a remarkable freshly-minted work from outgoing ANAM director Paul Dean to expose the virtuosity of his successor Nick Deutsch, and a rousing trip into established repertoire with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D.
Soloist in Per Norgard’s Percussion Concerto For a Change, Kaylie Melville operated from (as far as I could see) three stations positioned right in front of the audience. Norgard’s work is ostensibly in four movements, representing four states of being extracted from that fountain of fascination for post-Cage composers, the I Ching or Book of Changes. What actually comes out is a sequence of massively charged solos for the percussionist with the orchestra very much a supporting act, occasionally offering relief and, it has to be said, context behind the free-wheeling, attention-grabbing soloist. Norgard’s enthusiasm for Eastern sounds come over with remarkable clarity in the flavours of his writing, even if the cultural suggestions in movements like the opening Thunder Repeated, the Image of Shock sound more like Tibet than China, suggesting the long semi-braying trumpets that used to sound from the Potala in Lhasa.
Melville gave a bravura performance, moving from drums and woodblocks to a large array of gongs, then over to a panoply of more drums – the whole exercise carried out with assurance and an obvious familiarity with the Danish composer’s demands. While you came across moments of tranquillity, even near-stasis, the score (here receiving its Australian premiere, although I thought that distinction had already gone to Perth’s Tim White) made its most compelling impact in a set of long cadenza-style solo passages for Melville: shifting rhythms suggesting a compressed minimalism, just-this-side-of-painful heightened dynamics, a constant barrage of contrasting timbres. As a vehicle for this ANAM graduate, Norgard’s sustained exercise enjoyed a positive reception in a hall that, at its conclusion, was tropically sweltering.
Paul Dean’s farewell gesture to ANAM is an oboe concerto, with Deutsch its first executant; this work did enjoy a premiere performance on Saturday night. For reasons that escape me, the composer has kept his soloist’s output fixed in the instrument’s high register, which means that the oboe is a pretty strident line for most of the time. In the traditional three movements, the fast-slow-fast sequence is interrupted by a cadenza, one that is no free-for-all rubato rhapsody because an escorting snare drum emerges to set up a grounding rhythmic baseline. Dean lays on rich washes of sound in the outer segments, wind and brass providing solid sound-walls that the soloist emerges from with penetrating sustained notes. An easing lyricism obtains in the central adagio where the support is reduced to strings alone but, in keeping with the concerto’s unapologetic focus on the soloist, Deutsch set up the lyrical running pretty quickly and maintained it throughout what was a welcome hiatus in a typically ebullient creation.
Fortunately, the ANAM strings came into their own for the Sibelius symphony. Indeed, one of the more gripping spectacles in what had now become uncomfortable atmospheric conditions was the sight of the corps bending into their work, both in the flows and ebbs of Sibelius’ opening Allegretto and late in the arches of the finale’s central theme. In sum, the reading generated by conductor Antonio Mendez proved to be urgent and magniloquent, its ongoing problem one of balance. Even from the first, you were left to question the conductor’s weighting; when the woodwind entered with the first theme in bar 9, the clarinets could be heard clearly while the lead oboe line was present but not dominant. The third movement Vivacissimo was certainly that, its 6/8 tarantella exciting to watch but clarity of delivery was questionable, particularly after Letter C when the brass made their presence felt.
Something similar dogged the finale; not so much in the broad-beamed melodic streams but in pesante full orchestra pages the brass and wind were allowed too much dynamic latitude. You felt that the suggestions of Scandinavian grandeur-in-nature were suffering from over-kill, that Sibelius’ spacious sonorous edifices had been turned into cliff-faces without detail. Having noted that, however, the final peroration came over as a proper capstone to the performance, the players undiminished in drive and responsiveness. Obviously, the Academy is raring to go for another year; here’s hoping the bureaucrats and penny-pinchers somehow, sometime get to see these gifted talents showcasing their abilities. It’s always an invigorating sight and the full ensemble’s impact can be striking; this Sibelius reading had more individuality, even with its over-heftiness, than a performance broadcast on ABC Radio from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra the preceding night.