Music Review: Heroic, Adelaide Town Hall

Leading Sibelian, Osmo Vänskä conducted a vivacious performance of Sibelius and Beethoven.
Heroic. Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. On the left is a shot chest up of a middle aged white man with grey hair wearing dark rimmed glasses, folding his arms and holding a conductor's baton. On the right is a younger dark haired man wearing a dark suit and tie over a white shirt, smiling at the camera and holding his hands in front of him.

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä is widely acclaimed as “the greatest living Sibelian” so it was apt that his debut appearance here with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) should feature the music of his countryman Jean Sibelius. Vänskä’s considerable Sibelius repertoire includes prestigious recordings of all the symphonies and tone poems, and countless live performances.

Here in Adelaide we were treated to Lemminkäinen, a suite of four magical tone poems from the late Romantic period. These magnificent works are brooding and moody with superb passages for the cor anglais, played with real feeling by Peter Duggan, the clarinet by Dean Newcomb and the cello featuring Sharon Grigoryan, playing with her usual verve and precision. The final piece, Lemminkäinen’s Return is indeed heroic as it comes to a great crashing climax. 

These dramatic pieces were to have come together in an opera to be called The Building of the Boat, but the work remained unfinished and these tone poems were eventually published as a suite some 50 years after they were composed. Sibelius is rightly regarded as the national composer of Finland and single-handedly brought the music and mythology of his country to international attention.

Before the interval, Vänskä showed his deep understanding of another hugely heroic composer with two pieces by that colossus of classical music Ludwig van Beethoven. The Overture to his work for Goethe’s Egmont made a dramatic opening and set the tone for the concert. The strings carried the full drama, led with grace as always by concertmaster Kate Suthers, with powerful contributions from the winds, brass and percussion. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to hear the remaining nine Egmont movements. And in this short work we were given a masterclass in Vänskä’s vivacious style of conducting and his innate musical finesse that showcases the rich orchestral colours in each work. 

After a quick rearrangement of the seating on stage, the Orchestra was joined by the talented Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov for Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto (and not the fourth as mentioned in the program notes). This is an early work and full of musical elements that would have sounded daring indeed when it was first performed in the 1790s.

Abduraimov played with such insouciance he made it appear easy. His touch was just exquisite and the fine second Largo movement was especially divine. There was a clear empathic understanding between conductor and soloist, and a strong rapport between Vänskä and the ASO players. Somewhere in the rousing Rondo: Allegro third movement I found myself reminded of that wonderful Hugh Grant line in Love Actually: ‘David Beckham’s right foot; David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.’ Only here it would be ‘Behzod Abduraimov’s right hand; Behzod Abduraimov’s left hand, come to that’. 

Read: Theatre review: WAY, fortyfivedownstairs

This was indeed a heroic program and a real celebration of two much-loved composers with an engaging conductor and impressive soloist. 

Heroic, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Series 4, Adelaide Town Hall, with conductor Osmo Vänskä and pianist Behzod Abduraimov.
Heroic was performed for two nights only, 3-4 May 2024.

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.