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Friday, February 15, 2019

Blowing through the Winds

From the Vault Dept.: Australia’s tercentenary was celebrated thirty years ago with a worldwide variety of antipodean-related events. In Albany, NY, the local symphony presented a series of concerts that featured works by Australian composers. Here’s my review of one of those.


TO SAY THAT OBOIST CYNTHIA WATSON was the star of last Friday’s concert by the Albany Symphony Orchestra takes too much credit away from the other soloists who also shone, but when Watson took her solo bow at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony it was after an evening of superlative work.

Richard Mills (in a more recent view)
Guest conductor Richard Mills continued the season-long tribute to Australia’s tercentenary with works by two of that country’s composers – one of them being Mills himself.

His “Fantastic Pantomimes,” written and first performed two years ago during a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra tour of Japan, is a suite for five soloists and orchestra inspired by traditions of Japanese theater. It’s a piece of gesture and feel, relying on dramatic effects of rhythm and punctuation over the traditions (especially in a concerto-like setting) of melodic progression.

The soloists, stationed star-like at points on the stage within the ensemble, were Watson, flutist Floyd Hebert, clarinetist Susan Martula, trumpeter James Morris and David Saunders, French horn.

Mills achieves a difficult effect in this work: working with delicate shadings, he has created a very transparent piece. It has the texture of a loose-fitting gown that adapts easily to the shape of each section (there are several of contrasting hue) while allowing the soloists to shine.

That’s a tough quintet to work with in terms of instrumental blend, but Mills provided an orchestral backdrop that suited the needs of each, both singly and in groups.

He received equally fine support from the rest of the orchestra, once again proving its virtuosity at interpreting a difficult contemporary score with the added scare of the composer himself on the podium.

Wind players got a break in Peter Sculthorpe’s “Sun Music I,” a 1965 work that used brass, strings and a large army of percussion. It was fortuitously paired with “Pantomimes”; like fellow-countryman Mills, Sculthorpe has explored the musical cultures of the Pacific, Japan in particular, and worked that influence into his own compositions.

The title suggests the influence of the Australian landscape, and the work does seem to have a bright relentlessness about it. It’s a study in orchestral texture, swelling steadily into a single climax through its course with a pleasing dissonance.

Unlike the work of many American and European academics, the Australian music presented so far this year has never sounded as if it were being written only to impress other academics. Written with the same contemporary palette of techniques, the music is dramatic and enjoyable.

There are, of course, those who never will be pleased except by the traditional (overheard at intermission, after the Mills piece: “D’ja come out whistling the tunes?” spoken sourly), and the concert was bracketed with crowd-pleasing fare.

Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” overture, with its snares and staccato strings, is a great deal of fun. The balance sounded muddy in the Troy Music Hall, however, with the brilliance of the strings too overpowered by the fortissimo brass.

By the Tchaikovsky symphony the orchestra was blended smartly, and Mills did more than ample justice to what can be an interminable score. Watson picked off the well-known oboe solo in the second movement with soulful brilliance, and the strings had a field day with their bumptious pizzicato scherzo.

More music from Australia will be presented at the ASO’s next pair of concerts, March 17 and 18, with the suite from the ballet Corroboree by John Antill. Soprano Marilyn Richardson will be guest soloist in Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915" and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 27 February 1989

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