Proms panache

(Not) the Last Night of the Proms (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

QPAC, Concert Hall

August 9

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Musically, Proms (short for promenade concerts), is a term now synonymous with The Proms season of orchestral classical musical concerts held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in London. Its annual televised September Last Night, very different from the other concerts, is a light-hearted show of popular classics followed by a second half of British patriotic pieces. It is quite appropriate, therefore, that The Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s special tribute event is entitled “(Not) The Last Night of the Proms”… The reason is that this is the Proms defined in a here and now context with a colourful collection of works offering something for everyone in its packed audience.

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From the world premiere of Joseph Twist’s ‘Peace at the Last’, melodically lyrical and beautifully tranquil with Brisbane Chorale’ symphonic chorus accompaniment, to Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, the finale from “Candide”, including its accompanying, increasingly-tempoed audience stomp along by young and old alike, “(Not) The Last Night of The Proms” certainly delivers on its promise of uplifting and rousing evening.

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Under the baton of Maestro Alondra de la Parra, the audience is journeyed though Australia and the U.S. to the Land of Hope and Glory in a musical kaleidoscope. Six Australian composers feature in Act One. Memorably, acclaimed Australian aboriginal didgeridoo player William Barton blends the world’s oldest culture with Europe’s rich musical legacy in impassioned appeal to attune to the land through Peter Sculthorpe’s harrowing ‘Earth City’, emerging from the stalls in introduction to the number’s lingering sounds. Languid in its evocation of a vast landscape soundtrack, its sounds are sensational, especially in ending, during which string and brass sections sing in unison.

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And Michael Hurst’s ‘Swagman’s Promenade’ boisterous medley of four traditional, unmistakably-Australian folk tunes is a rich and emotionally satisfying Act One ending, with its grand trumpets, additional organ sounds from tower above the stage and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ singalong.

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The concert’s personality is evident from its playful opening number, Nigel Westlakes ‘Cudmirrah Fanfare’, featuring a full orchestration, in particular percussionists and brass players, in share of a soaring starting spirit ahead of its final flourish of trumpets and horns. And then there is the brief burst of The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ which plays out of a speaker in snippet into the The Australian Voices’ Gordon Hamilton’s ‘482 Variations on a Very Short Theme’, commissioned for The QSO. The feel-good work sees the orchestra latch onto three of the notes (“in a yellow”) and spins them as motif out to 482 micro variations and it is absolutely delightful in its interest and feature of strings’ snap pizzicato and playing with the wood on the bow, before a blast of brass and even some Mexican sound swaggers of trumpet and percussion in tribute to the conductor’s heritage.

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The pomp and circumstance comes in Act Two, literally, with Edward Elgar’s March No. 1 in D popular graduation processional tune. But first there is some American panache courtesy of George Gershwin’s multilayered masterpiece ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (possibly the most famous piece of American classical music) played by extraordinary Mexican concert pianist Jorge Viladoms in his Australian debut. Its varied tempos of feverish hustle and bustle highs and mellow jazzy clarinet solo lows create a highly entertaining initial Act Two highlight. Indeed, the timeless portrayal of America in the 1920’s is something truly magical in Vildom’s hands and worthy of the price of admission alone. In both exuberant crescendos and softer moments alike, his ability to capture the audience’s ear and eye is remarkable. And the supporting orchestra is similar outstanding in its grandeur.

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Staying in New York, Leonard Bernstein’s three snappy dance episodes from “On The Town” show what a dynamic force of spellbinding energy acclaimed conductor Alondra de la Parra has brought as to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra as Music Director (the first ever Music Director of an Australian orchestra). Her performance is vibrant in its power and passion, but also beguiling, making it a commanding attraction in itself as she guides the orchestra’s musicians in shape of each number’s sound. In short, she is a must-see conductor.

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An almost three-hour show is a big audience ask for a weeknight, but rarely does it feel like it with bombastic numbers like Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule Britannia’, which sees Union Jacks awave throughout the venue and like “Scotland the Brave” a streamered end appropriate to it sense of shared celebration.

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Although, this is not quite the end as rather than finish on an anthem of imperialist conquest, didgeridoo and classic string sounds again combine in reminder of the reconciliation intent signposted in the show’s opening welcome to country.

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The Queensland Symphony Orchestra seems to be doing everything right, right now and there is certainly no denying the merits of this show. Many of its numbers feel cinematic in sound, which serves as reminder of their performances of live scores along with film screenings, such as last month’s “Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert” and the program offers a glimpse of its upcoming “Bernstein at 100” special event in celebration of the life and works of the remarkable musical powerhouse.

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There is also the added touch, in this instance, of seeing musicians from Brisbane Girls Grammar School joining with the orchestra on stage for the final three numbers, in culmination of the QSO’s Prossima Program which provides students with the opportunity to be mentored by and perform with some of Australia’s finest musicians, meaning that when it comes to “(Not) The Last Night of the Proms”, there really isn’t much not to love.

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