Review: Adelaide Symphony at Royce Hall


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Adelaide might seem like an off-the-beaten-path musical destination to the Eurocentric or North American mind. But this south Australian city has already hosted two Wagner “Ring” cycles, in 1998 and 2004, whereas mighty Los Angeles is about to launch only its first next month. You can even hear the 2004 cycle on discs in SACD sound.

Moreover, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has completed another ambitious recording project, an entire Sibelius symphony cycle due out in June (and while we’re making comparisons, just what happened to the long-promised iTunes L.A. Philharmonic Sibelius cycle?).


So Adelaide is hardly a musical backwater -- and its orchestra, which played at Royce Hall on Friday night, is a very good one, solid and stable in all sections.

To their brave credit, the Adelaide ensemble and Estonian chief conductor-music director Arvo Volmer (right) used most of the program to expose new Australian music to an audience that hears very little of it. Everything was built upon tonal, audience-friendly European classical models, but with strange local twists and unorthodox means of pushing the arguments forward.

Two of the works were showcases for the remarkable didgeridoo virtuoso from western Queensland, William Barton (left), a massive man whose stage presence is one of formidable dignity. In his hands, the instrument produced low-pitched, guttural droning and squawking against the orchestra in a busy orchestral scherzo, “Spirit of Kalkadunga,” that is credited to Barton and Matthew Hindson. A revised version of Peter Sculthorpe’s “Earth Cry” seems to take a leaf from Villa-Lobos with its freewheeling fusion of European influences and wildness from the interior of a vast region, with Barton’s didgeridoo gasping and growling.

Ross Edwards’ “White Ghost Dancing” brought in a minimalist element, but again with a wild streak and irregular rhythms. Graham Koehne’s Concerto for Two Cellos and Orchestra, featuring the luscious playing of the twin cellists Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian Ng, is a 16-minute barcarole with a gently flowing triple-meter rhythm that just keeps moving relentlessly and romantically. Carl Vine’s “V” starts out as a grandiloquent anthem but then gets a bit weird with many compact detours and a brief manic solo for the concertmaster.

As a culmination, Volmer offered a sampling of his Sibelius cycle with the Symphony No. 5. But this performance didn’t speak well for the cause, for there was no mystery in the opening movement, little forward propulsion or awareness of how to shape the rhetorical points, and crucial string lines frequently buried by the brasses. The encore, Sibelius’ “Valse Triste,” at least had a good command of the singing line.

-- Richard S. Ginell