BY CHRISTOPHER WAINWRIGHT
Master Series Concert 1: Silver and Gold
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with Akiko Sawanai, violin, and Mark Wigglesworth, conductor
Adelaide Town Hall, 1 April
Starting a Master Series concert with a Strauss waltz was a delightful surprise. The classic rule of programming an overture, concerto, or symphony into a performance is there to be broken – and this is what the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra did fabulously with Strauss’ joyous Emperor Waltz.
Under British conductor Mark Wigglesworth’s refined direction, there was no danger of this Emperor turning into a schmaltzy ‘Andre Rieu special’. Rather, what Wigglesworth created, with the ASO totally respecting and following his precise and clean conducting, was a waltz with finely balanced and well-calculated proportions of dynamics, pauses, and changes of tempi. This then allowed the whimsy, humour, and stateliness of the work to come to life with perfect development of dynamics and energy, giving the waltz its deserved, joyous ending.
Continuing in the spirit of fine Viennese music-making, the ASO programmed the Korngold’s Violin Concerto with soloist Akiko Suwani, the youngest-ever winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Interestingly, Suwanai now plays the ‘Dolphin’ Stradivarius, which was previously owned by Jascha Heifetz – the legendary violinist who premiered this concerto in 1947. If only this violin could talk and recount the memories of its Korngold debut!
Korngold’s Violin Concerto was created using melodies and themes from his prize-winning film scores: Another Dawn, Anthony Adverse, and The Prince and The Pauper. They are all very dramatic works, engendering great romanticism and drama, and depending on how the soloist approaches the work it can either be a perfect balance of a sizzling, romantic drama-thriller or it can turn into big-time, romantic schmalz. Fortunately, Akiko Suwanai knew how to perfectly walk the tightrope and, with her amazing technical facilities, perfectly balanced all the emotions and energies of this big concerto.
Akiko Suwanai may be small in stature, but in no way did this impact on her ability to create a big sound or tackle complex, virtuosic passages. The way she approached the opening with warmth, depth, and beauty, giving it such spine-tingling clarity, made one immediately realise that this was a very impressive soloist.
Throughout the concerto the ASO provided a perfect accompaniment to Suwanai. This is a concerto where phrasing, pauses, dynamics, tempi changes, and sound blending are so important; the ability to control them and utilise them appropriately is what gives this work its potent romantic and dramatic intensity. Knowing this is one thing, but to create it as well as Wigglesworth and the ASO did is an entirely different thing altogether.
After such a big dose of Viennese-inspired melodies and drama, it was time to move to the heavier world of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major – a work which shows off Brahms’ mastery as a refined orchestrator. In this symphony, Brahms has this amazing ability of constantly creating dramatic tension through darkness of its instrumentation, the gradual building of sound, and the contrasts between its sections. Wigglesworth conducted from memory, and his knowledge of the work showed in the way he brought it to life. Hearing orchestral musicians who appreciate the counterpoint, the harmonies, the value of a huge dynamic palette, and who understand how to make a masterpiece sound new and energised is a sheer delight.
For the closing movement of Brahms’ Symphony, marked Allegro con spirito, Wigglesworth chose a tempi which perfectly captured its spirited, energetic nature. The spiritedness wasn’t just in the tempo – it came through with the intelligent use of dynamics, the growth of sound, and how each of the orchestra’s sections blended.
Watching the symphony come to a close, one immediately realised that seeing Wigglesworth with the ASO was an absolute privilege. Not often can one witness a conductor of such ability and calibre, who so naturally communicates their passion for the art form and who holds complete control over an orchestra. His passion and enthusiasm was, without doubt, infectious!