Reviewed by Priscilla Issa
The Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2023 opening concert on 11th March was carefully curated and brilliantly executed. It was an absolute delight to watch Australian and internationally acclaimed conductor, Paul Terracini, command the KPO and lead them to impressive heights. It’s clear the players respect Terracini; the high regard for him does seem to bring out the orchestra’s best. Two much-loved and mighty works, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathetique, and the more recent Ode to Lidice by Martinu and The Laws of Motion by Sydney-based composer Angus Davison, explored a variety of issues, ranging from nature, crime, and the human folly.
The night began with Davison’s 2020 composition The Laws of Motion, based on scientist Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion. At first glance, one might question whether an orchestra can convey the physical principles that govern the way objects move. In the first movement, the ascending brass followed by the descending trickles of the violin, as well as the constant dynamic pull between crescendo and descrescendo, were perfect examples to highlight the first law, ‘Equal and Opposite Reactions’. The ‘Mass’ in the second law, ‘Force = Mass x Acceleration’, could very well have been the string harmonies and suspensions in the bass parts that support the languid and floating flute. The gradual accelerando in the music aptly satisfies the ‘Acceleration’ component of the second law. Altogether, this movement was a true tour de ‘Force’. The third movement was certainly the crowd favourite. Titled ‘Unbalanced Forces’, the work begins with the clinking of the triangle, followed by repetitive Latin American-inspired rhythms on the snare drum, and then spontaneous and synchronous orchestral jolts signaling an object stopping. The mismatch of rhythms and the cacophony of sound could not describe unbalanced forces better.
It was wonderful to begin the KPO’s season with Grieg’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor (Op 16), performed by none other than Kathryn Selby AM, one of Australia’s leading soloists. The drum roll crescendo of the Allegro molto moderato, followed by Selby’s dramatic descending fortissimo double octaves, was passionate and dramatic. The languid melodies and flourishes of the woodwind lines were beautifully supported by the gentle, yet crisp, piano arpeggio accompaniment. The scherzando-like passages ending in chromatic thirds were technically impressive and led into the sonorous sounds of the cellos. Following this, Selby executed the mighty cadenza with virtuosity and flair. Only one with her experience and prowess could have pulled off a challenging first movement such as this. A far cry from the liveliness of the first movement, the Adagio was introspective and hymnlike. Under Terracini’s masterful instruction, the orchestra created a soulful meditation, enabling Selby to break the stillness with wistful melodies. In fact, she is so thoughtful in her lyricism and rubato that her ability to make the piano ‘sing’ allows for each note to tug at heartstrings.. The finale, Allegro moderato molto e marcato, with the various Norwegian folk dance elements (open 5ths and dissonance), transported audiences to a far-off Scandinavian land. The flute introduced the pastoral and tranquil second theme. Selby’s cadenza after cadenza set up the joyous and grandiose finale, bringing the work to a conclusion with, as it began, a mighty drum roll. An outstanding concerto by a truly formidable Australian talent!
Perhaps the most emotional work of the night was the orchestra’s performance of Bohuslav Matinu’s Ode to Lidice. The story behind the work is devastating. It is a threnody to those men, women, and children executed by the Nazis in Lidice, a Czech village near Prague. The KPO painted a vivid picture of the 1942 scene. The unbearably heavy chords interspersed by orchestral eruptions of the brass instruments symbolised the somber march to death followed by the firing of bullets. While the winds occasionally added glints of colour, the strings would interject, contributing to the weighty solemnity of the score’s thick and grief-stricken harmonies. The horns’ rhythmic iteration of the opening of Beethoven’s “Fate” motto punctured the thickness of the compositional texture. Finally, the visual of a Czech nation reborn after the devastation of WWII is conveyed with a major chord. This was an incredibly thought-provoking performance of Matinu’s anguish and deep sorrow.
The showpiece of the night was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathetique (Op 74). In the pre-performance speech, Terracini educates audiences on the mystery that shrouds it’s composition. He mentions that Tchaikovsky died a mere nine days after conducting the premiere of the symphony. The circumstances of his death remain murky to this day. As such, there is much speculation about whether Tchaikovsky wrote it in anticipation of his own death or because it was an artistic representation of the shame caused by the struggle with his sexuality. Following the slow and stately Adagio, the first movement Allegro non troppo lunged into momentum, not through tempi as much as the forceful attack of the cello and basses. The string tremolo and the subsequent joining in of the flutes and clarinets using rising triplets built to a very exciting climax. The ‘D’ bass pedal against the hypnotic waltz-like 5/4 felt frenetic. The KPO did a marvelous job of highlighting the unsettling nature of the movement. Fast-track to the fourth movement, the Finale adagio lamentoso. The KPO accurately conveyed the subversion of the typical final movement from a jubilant and triumphant finale to a movement that dies away to nothing. Terracini treats the finale with seriousness. There was an incredible emphasis on the horn ostinato - a kind of cry of despair. The brooding roll of the timpani in the final minutes insists rhythmically, signaling a funeral procession. This was a mighty and emotional performance.
Congratulations one and all on a splendid start to the 2023 season!