Music review: Grandeur, Symphony Series 3, ASO, Adelaide Town Hall

Leading soprano Sara Macliver starred in an intriguing concert of old and new music.
A white woman in a long sleeveless white dress stands in front of an orchestra singing, the conductor has his back to the camera. Sara Macliver, ASO, Grandeur.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO)’s third Symphony Series concert for 2024 did indeed live up to its “grand” title with two fascinating premieres alongside two wonderfully regal Baroque favourites. And while there seemed to be little to connect the works, musically or historically, the whole still came together as a rewarding and engaging program, due in no small part to the British conductor Stephen Layton and the soloist, soprano Sara Macliver.

Grandeur opened with a string ensemble of just 10 players for Barbican Glade, a short piece by the Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova. Written two years ago to mark the 40th anniversary of the Barbican Centre, a multi-arts venue in the City of London, this was its Australian premiere performance.

Inspired by the Brutalist architecture of the imposing building and the adjoining urban garden that forms part of its footprint, this is a piece with a split personality, both jarring and resonant. It’s highly expressive but not immediately accessible. And, like my favourite of Tabakova’s works, her 2021 composition The Patience of Trees, it rewards the careful listener with its stirring passages and gentle resolution.  

The London-based Layton is known as an enthusiastic champion of new music and appeared very relaxed as he led the players through this piece. His is a very diverse oeuvre and he segued with ease into Bach’s rousing Cantata no. 51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen!. Bach was the supreme organist of his time and composed a vast canon of religious music.

Popular soprano Sara Macliver gave full voice to this worshipful piece. She may have been singing of ‘feeble voices’ in the recitative, albeit in German, but there was absolutely nothing feeble about her delivery. Macliver has lovely pitch and expression and a delightful demeanour on stage. The ASO’s principal trumpet, David Khafagi, was an absolute standout in the leading trumpet part and fully deserved his starring role on the cover of the program. Joshua van Konkelenberg was also impressive on the chamber organ.

After interval we were treated to the world premiere performance of Before the Law, a new work by the ASO’s Emerging Composer in Association, Jakub Jankowski, based on the parable of the same name in The Trial by the visionary Bohemian writer Franz Kafka.

And indeed the work is Kafkaesque in style and sentiment. Macliver sang the first stanza and then spoke the second through a large grey megaphone, causing considerable eyebrow-raising in the audience. This is an ambitious and audacious work from the 30-year-old composer and thankfully the audience appreciated it, with Jankowski taking a well-deserved bow to hearty applause. 

 And then it was another old favourite, the utterly charming Music for the Royal Fireworks by George Frederic Handel. This is big and brassy and evokes echoes of carnivals as well as the fireworks for which it was scored. The grand Overture was followed by a lively Bourrée, before Peace and Rejoicing and culminating with a joyous pair of minuets complete with rolling percussion and resounding brass

Read: Ballet review: Carmen, Sydney Opera House

Together the four short pieces, the longest just 20 minutes, made the concert rather too brief at considerably less than two hours including interval. Nevertheless, Grandeur was an exciting and invigorating concert and full marks to the ASO for championing new works along with our old favourites.

Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Stephen Layton and Soprano Sara Macliver performed Grandeur, Symphony Series 3 from 12-13 April at Adelaide Town Hall.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.