Having a go


Geelong Symphony Orchestra

Costa Hall, Deakin University, Geelong

Saturday October 22, 2022

Stefan Cassomenos

This regional orchestra was established in 2016 and, under favourable conditions, it has managed to present three concerts a year since then, apart from the recent Plague Years that are now being re-evaluated as not as perilous as first thought; a marvel to be living through historical re-writing, unabashed to the point of brazen. Even in its early years, it didn’t come to my attention in the same way that the Stonnington Symphony did during my decades in Melbourne. Of course, I heard enough of the Malvern people to know that their efforts were more am than pro, their work sometimes painfully laboured; which made expectations of the Geelong musicians rather carefully non-commital. They remain so.

Saturday night’s concert as presented online by the Australian Digital Concert Hall saw conductor Richard Davis take his players through Smetana’s The Moldau and the E minor Symphony No. 9 by Dvorak. In the centre of this old-fashioned program, Stefan Cassomenos was soloist in Schumann’s Op. 54 Piano Concerto. From their archives, you can see that Davis is a regular with this body and Cassomenos has appeared in a GSO event almost four years ago to the day when he performed the Mozart K. 450 in B flat. As well, you can see that the organization’s ambitions are high as it presents familiar if taxing repertoire.

Like this night. The two Czech works feature among serious music’s most familiar scores, turning up in all over the Western world’s concert halls on a regular basis. And that’s fine, particularly if you get reasonably accurate interpretations; they don’t have to be plain sailing, pure velvet all the way, but you’d like to follow the progress without wincing. For the greater part of this night, the Geelong musicians got all the notes out and in tune. But they were hard-pressed in their work and it showed in some leaden pages during both the symphony and the concerto.

Things began ominously. We came online to see the orchestra on stage and a hush over Costa Hall – which went on for some time. Then the wind players started some little flourishes, general talk broke out, all of which again descended into an ecclesiastical murmur. Some wag called out an encouragement to general amusement (muted). Then the concertmaster arrived, followed pretty swiftly by Davis. But for a moment I was taken back to an MSO concert where the concertmaster failed to arrive for a very long time; we found out later that he was playing hardball in his contract negotiations with the orchestra or the ABC, I can’t remember which.

In any case, the unnamed leader arrived, then the conductor and soon we were into the flute duet that opens The Moldau. This exquisite dovetailing lasts for 15 bars and you’re meant to get the impression, before the clarinets arrive, that one flute is playing. Sadly, the joins here showed a bit too clearly. But the quadruple winds passage to bar 36 worked to better effect as the Moldau’s feeder streams led to the main body with some fine murmuring from the group’s violas. The texture sounded unduly ragged when the first violins cut out at bar 69 and the seconds were left exposed but the melodic flow was impressive up to the mood-changing Es at bar 118 where the horns wavered on an easy cliff-edge. Another case of lapsed concentration emerged at bar 133 in the middle of the rustic wedding where the communal attack wasn’t; surprising, as the Geelong basses made an emphatic underpinning for this entire stretch.

The strings (upper) took to the Moonlight change of scene with an unwillingness to let go, their minims and semibreves not very congruent with the woodwind’s burbling semiquavers. Later, the woodwind should have been similarly indulged around bar 233 but weren’t allowed sufficient lebensraum. So on to St. John’s Rapids and a prominent cymbal just before the river broadened (following a very muddy violins+violas upward rush at bar 332), and we reached Vysehrad which was despatched very rapidly. I don’t understand the need for a ritardando at about bar 404, the last heroic blazoning; perhaps an unconscious salute to marine pollution brought in by the Elbe. But those triumphant concluding pages before the moving last string arpeggios gave an impression of untidiness; the tone poem sounding at its best when handling the rustic central segment.

We enjoyed another solid break while the piano’s microphones were adjusted with a care that seemed finicky to me but was eminently justifiable according to the demands of the electrician’s operating handbook; the settling of microphones can take almost as much time as percussionists organizing themselves at a contemporary chamber music affair. I didn’t see anyone use the piano’s A for a tuning pivot: everyone just took the oboe’s pitch as the operating datum. Cassomenos used a score which I’ve never been able to criticise having seen the great Moura Lympany once lose her place during the first movement of the Emperor.

A worrying problem was the lack of synchronicity between soloist and orchestra as early as the tutti chords at bars 3-4. A momentary freeze in transmission, and we took up again at the soloist’s restatement of the main theme in C Major. It was hard to work out why the clarinet wasn’t sustaining notes for their full length in the following Animato section; minims tied to crotchets simply disappeared halfway through; as was the case further on at the Andante espressivo section. At Letter C in my old Breitkopf and Hartel edition where the work’s opening flourish is revisited, the orchestra came to life during some expert statement-and-response work with Cassomenos, whose attack moved into choppy territory at the Piu animato duet with the GSO first flute. Still, by the time he reached the next solo, just before the recapitulation, he was working at an excellent Schumann vein of controlled delicacy which continued up to his duet with the first oboe preceding Letter F. At the start of the cadenza, the pianist manipulated the piano’s upper line with impressive expertise, even if I found the trills at the Un poco andante to be over-aggressive. To end, the orchestra was late across the movement’s last four chords.

By contrast, the Intermezzo satisfied on nearly all grounds, the flute/clarinet/bassoon/horn ensemble punctuations both efficient and well-inserted into the narrative. Cassomenos momentarily hit a patch of uneven delivery 17 bars before the third movement eruption and the string rush that leads into that Allegro vivace was undisciplined. The pianist’s instrument sounded very weighty at the opening and, after a while, you took extra pleasure in segments where the soloist did not feel the need to punch out his contribution. That abrupt change to a march rhythm across the prevailing 3/4 bar lengths found the strings uneasy with where to put the emphases. A later unhappy point came just before the key signature change to F Major where individual groups were exposed, most of them rather thin in output by this stage. An uncharacteristic fumble from the pianist marred the endless right-hand quaver patterns 23 bars before Letter H and the return of the march.

At about this stage you were struck by how little ebullience had been transmitted during this movement. The flashes that should burst out in the tutti passages failed to appear and the pages packed with piano figuration were characterless – exercises without individuality. The end came as a release from tedium, I’m afraid, this last movement a slog for both performers and audience.

After interval, the concertmaster again made another individual entrance and the players again stood for the conductor; something of an excess in protocols of acknowledgement unless the parties involved felt the need for such mindless bobbing and unnecessary bouts of applause (for what? showing up?). What until this stage had been a suspicion became obvious when the Dvorak symphony got under way: this orchestra doesn’t have enough high and middle strings. For all that lack of weight, the bodies concerned put their backs into their work, such enthusiasm paying off well in tutti patches. Once more, we experienced an early unsettling inaccuracy from horns 3 and 4 in bar 16, the prefiguring of the Allegro molto‘s first subject. However, the performance settled into place quickly and the only disturbance during the exposition (which was repeated) came with a dynamic imbalance at about bar 129 where the woodwind sextet choir proved too strong for the melody-carrying violins (let alone the momentarily high-lit basses).

Davis isn’t alone in pulling back the pace in the string handling of Dvorak’s Swing low theme at bar 157 but it always strikes me as over-sentimentalizing this touching moment. A small glitch marring this movement’s development came in the horns (1 and 2 this time) at bar 220 but the fortissimo explosions impressed the further these players got into the score’s homely bravado; all that was lacking was a touch of high string hysteria. Finally, I couldn’t pin it down (viz. ascribe definite blame) but the rush towards the final cadence, at about bar 441, was faulty in what is a straightforward passage of play.

A famous danger spot, the opening wind chord to Dvorak’s Largo failed to reassure you of the ensemble’s security. That famous cor anglais solo didn’t enjoy the happiest bar 8 where a small clip disturbed the flow, and the second bassoon minim in bar 20 made a delayed entry. Once more, Davis is not alone in rushing through the string filler at bars 32 to 34, but is anything gained by this acceleration? At their first statement of the middle C sharp minor interlude (bars 64 to 67), the first violins demonstrated their potential as a highly responsive corps; and the string decet near the movement’s end was graced by an excellent, vibrant duet between the concertmaster and principal cello. I turned the volume up but still didn’t register the low D flat in the Largo‘s last bass divisi chord.

Happily, the following scherzo passed with loads of vehemence and crisp dynamics, my only quibble the clarinets’ restatement of the trio’s theme at bar 78 where the players weren’t quite on the note for a substantial octave stretch of 8 bars. Some more obvious problems peppered the concluding Allegro vivace. One of the brass missed the top note in bar 24; that lack of upper string power proved a detraction from the energy needed between bars 100 to 105. However, the stretch where Dvorak reviews his preceding movements was negotiated very well indeed and the strings made a graceful case for the decelerando at bar 220. In fact most of these last pages in the symphony came off successfully for this section, while a horn made a sad encounter with the top note of bar 268, and some players were jostling out of line at the approach to the Meno mosso e maestoso peroration, while the final chord could have been attacked more cleanly.

You can find a fair degree of competence in the Geelong orchestra and you have to wonder if the ensemble might have fared better with a program that wasn’t so well-known. When you’ve been familiar for years with these particular scores and the polish brought to them by great musicians – Ancerl, Szell, Brendel – it’s difficult to ignore any flaws, even when the interpretations on offer are based on laudable intentions. Obviously, I found this Smetana/Schumann/Dvorak trilogy only occasionally successful but, judged by the standards of other regional and suburban orchestras that I’ve heard, the GSO has a solid base on which to work. I’d like to hear the group at a later date, especially when performing music that doesn’t have a wealth of shatteringly fine interpretations readily available for comparison.