Adelaide Town Hall, Sat 13 Aug
Adelaide Town Hall was buzzing for the Guitar Festival Symphony Gala, with a packed house and anticipation high. There were two new works to be premiered, and the first half of the program did not disappoint. Following a brief introduction from ABC Classic’s Julie Howard to advise of the evening’s live broadcast, Conductor Benjamin Northey launched the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra into Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto andaluz for guitars and orchestra, featuring soloists Karin Schaupp, Aleksandr Tsiboulski, Leonard Grigoryan and Ken Murray on classical guitar.
The Rodrigo was glorious, with the guitarists all attacking the Bolero-esque waltz of the first movement and taking turns on solo runs. The second movement was more subdued, but provided ample opportunity for Karin Schaupp to shine, her guitar featured prominently, occasionally duetting with Tsiboulski, when not answering back and forth with the woodwinds. A lovely middle section returned to the waltz a bit faster, with the orchestra dropping out altogether, leaving the guitars to themselves, each soloing, and then working as an ensemble together through various technically challenging harmonic runs before finally returning to the original motif. The third movement returned to the waltz yet again, this time in a manner similar to the first movement, but with more vigour and speed, the guitars playing in ensemble answering back and forth with the orchestra, with melodic features for the trumpets. When the Rodrigo finally came to its close, the audience showed its appreciation warmly, bringing the quartet of guitarists back for an additional bow.
Next up was Ricardo Gallén to feature on guitar for the world premiere of Leo Brouwer’s Austral for guitar and chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Guitar Festival. The work opened dramatically, tonally reminiscent of Stravinsky or Holst, coming to a climax fairly early on before giving way to a sweeping chorale. Gallén’s playing was fantastic, moving through several runs nimbly, and he also retuned his low E string with the orchestra playing, his ear to the guitar neck. Eventually the pace picked up, with the orchestra becoming more frenzied and punctuated by sharp bursts of tympani. Later on Gallén seemed to not quite sync up with the orchestra, but he checked in visually with Northey, who was situated at perhaps a difficult peripheral angle from the soloist at the front of the stage. Everything seemed to be fine from there, and the performance overall was very strong, with the audience applauding heavily and bringing him back for another bow before breaking for a brief interval.
Upon our return, Benjamin Northey advised us that we’d be having a bit of a palate cleanser before the finale, courtesy of Maurice Ravel, he of the Bolero the Rodrigo had reminded us of earlier, with the Mother Goose Suite, itself not featuring the guitar, but lovely nonetheless. The opening movement slowly weaved its melody, gradually engaging the audience, and setting up the second with its more pastoral sound. The third movement was a lilting waltz featuring the clarinets and bassoon to bittersweet effect, its melodies tinged by melancholy. There was a brief feature for the violin, before the sombre finale brought the piece to a close.
It was time for the world premiere of Andrew Ford’s Raga for electric guitar and orchestra, featuring Zane Banks on guitar. He strode out, Telecaster in hand, and the orchestra opened with a dramatic percussive tympani and brass assault, followed by…sleigh bells. Eventually space was made for the guitar, and Banks came in with a sound reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, bending his notes over a bed of orchestral ambiance.
Northey had advised that Ford’s Raga was meant to reference the work of Ravi Shankar and Jerry Garcia, and the program noted Ford’s love of The Beatles, but the end result didn’t seem to reflect these influences, given instead to extended meandering guitar features over sustained orchestral textures, often tedious even by psychedelic standards. Members of the orchestra appeared to betray impatience during the longer sections with some unfortunate facial expressions when they weren’t playing. The work was performed very well, but it was kind of a slog. Banks’ guitar at times was drowned out by the orchestra, but it wasn’t really missed. The ASO sat out a section featuring drum kit and guitar, which was sort of an aggressive version of a rhythmless free-form jam-band freak-out, but when this happens in a rock context, it has generally been earned by a significant amount of rhythm and melody, which wasn’t really the case in this instance. A section followed featuring hi-hat reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s On The Run, with the guitar and orchestra building tension with syncopated figures before giving way to a slow, ponderous close.
Still, the audience responded with enthusiasm to the end of a well-performed and enjoyable evening. All of the featured guitarists came out to bow for the audience, and were presented with bouquets, before we made our way into the Adelaide night.
The Guitar Festival Symphony Gala was broadcast live on ABC Classic FM, and may be streamed HERE.