With a concert entitled 'Mystical And Majestic', and an opening piece by Wagner, no one was surely expecting a quiet night in with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra on Saturday (9 June) evening!
Right from the start, intentions were signalled with the opening bars of the 'Good Friday Spell' from the final act of 'Parsifal'. Grandiloquent, bold and loud in any circumstance, Conductor Guy Braunstein nevertheless pulled out the stops and made us sit up and take notice in no uncertain terms and broadcast the tone for the remainder of the evening.
The 'Good Friday Spell' meanders through nature transformed to the idyllic via the power of love and regained innocence. Parsifal (read Percival, as in knight of the round table) finally attains the Temple of the Holy Grail. It often sounds familiar, partly because it is, and partly because Wagner uses several recurring musical themes throughout, most notably the Dresden Amen (a six-note sequence used in church services in Saxony since the beginning of the 1800s), which crops up in the works of any number of 19th century composers.
Image © Josh Woning
Directly after the end of the Wagner, the piano was opened and the stage set for the second piece of the night. With a Russian pianist playing Prokofiev, we were always going to be in for a wild ride; Denis Kozhukhin provided energy in spades, literally throwing himself at the keyboard, working his shoulders and arms as well his fingers hard, and keeping up a breakneck pace in a composition that for long periods operates as a sonata rather than a concerto.
Even when the orchestra comes back in, the piece demands that the piano provide an underlying accompaniment, giving the pianist little respite. It all came off very well. Once or twice there may have been a couple of missed notes, but given how may notes there are, and how much of the keyboard is being used at any one time, it was a great performance. At the end, he looked thoroughly exhausted as well as elated, and his choice of a slow-paced, gentle, and beautifully played Bach prelude as an encore, seemed as much a physical necessity as a demonstration of range.
Image © Josh Woning
With the exception of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the 'invocation to the sun' at the start of Richard Straus’s tone poem 'Also sprach Zarathustra' may well be music’s most famous opening. Here, a magnificent low-throated thrum from the concert hall organ augmented the usual double basses and provided a sublime underlying accompaniment that you could actually feel, before the brass, tympani and full orchestral might took on the opening bars. There’s nothing quite like it when it’s done well! It’s elemental, and of course it’s an integral part of our popular culture through its use in Stanley Kubrick’s '2001: A Space Odyssey'. It’s probably more for this than any other element of the night’s programming, that the 'Mystical' referred.
Based on Nietzsche’s philosophical novel, this is an inclusive work for a large orchestra, where instead of the musicians subordinating themselves to accompany a star soloist, different instruments take centre stage and hold the melody as the piece develops. Nine sections correspond to the chapters of the book and it was great to see solo turns from Concertmaster Warwick Adeney (violin), Imants Larsens (viola) and Sarah Butler (trumpet) among others, as the piece wound its way through sections inspired by the general themes and stories of the novel.
Image © Josh Woning
On the evidence of this evening, Queensland Symphony Orchestra is continuing its 2018 season with considerable flair. The playing is tight and precise, the programming a welcome blend of the familiar and the less so, and the integration with guest conductors and soloists is working well. The maestro series of concerts continues with 'Russian Marvels' on 14 July.
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Parsifal, Act III: Good Friday Spell
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) – Symphonic poem, Op.30