October 2012

Arts & Letters

The Best of Australian Concert Music 2012

By Peter McCallum
Composer Brett Dean © Pawel Kopczynski

Even leaving aside the riches of visitors from foreign lands, it has been a strong 12 months for concert music in Australia.

The Sydney Symphony brought to completion its two-year Mahler cycle last November with the Second Symphony, a work with which it has a special relationship. When they gave the first Australian performance in 1950, the conductor was Otto Klemperer, who had learnt the work as Mahler’s assistant.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra has been working its way through all the Beethoven symphonies, using gut strings and period wind instruments. Its final instalment, a performance of the Ninth Symphony in August with a visiting choir from Clare College, Cambridge, was meticulous and thrilling, although the period brass instruments were unreliable in the important horn solos that articulate key structural moments in the third movement. Their performance of the Sixth Symphony last November was equally fresh and a highlight of the cycle.

For its enduring contribution to our national concert music, however, the work of the year must be the first Australian performance of Brett Dean’s violin concerto, The Lost Art of Letter Writing, by the Sydney Symphony under Jonathan Nott, with violinist Frank Peter Zimmerman. The four letters that form the basis for its musical rumination are by Johannes Brahms, Vincent van Gogh, Hugo Wolf and Ned Kelly. The Kelly letter from Jerilderie seems, initially, outside the prevailing theme of artists’ inner narratives, but serves well the progression of mood and musical tone from idealised tenderness, to isolation, delicate fantasy and disquieting menace.

Peter McCallum
Peter McCallum is the Sydney Morning Herald’s classical music critic and is Chair of the Academic Board at the University of Sydney.

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