Music review: Skyward, Adelaide Town Hall

Magical music that was written in the stars and played with passion.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s headline Symphony Series concerts are brought together in 2023 with emotional and elemental themes. Embrace, Vitality and Paradise will follow this rather magical concert programmed and promoted around the theme of Skyward. 

Four seemingly disparate works – a symphonic poem from 1889, a magnificent cello concert from over 100 years earlier, a modern piece by a contemporary Finnish composer and a superb symphony from the 1920s – all came together as a joyful and enriching program.

The evening opened with Don Juan, a symphonic poem by Richard Strauss. This was the first work to really bring him international acclaim and is still one of his most popular compositions. It was the orchestra here that reached for the stars, rather than the much more earthly concerns of the legendary lover, and even the composer himself whose romantic liaisons were rather complicated at the time. 

Don Juan got the pulse racing with its dramatic horns and thunderous passages that suddenly give way to much more reflective moods. The ASO kept up the vigorous pace under vivid guidance from guest conductor Tarmo Peltokoski. There was lovely work for the woodwinds, and all credit to principal oboeist Joshua Oates for his nuanced contribution. Concertmaster Kate Suthers also enjoyed the spotlight with the delightful violin solo. 

After something of a rearrangement on stage to suit a smaller ensemble, it was time for the undoubted main event, Joseph Haydn’s virtuosic Cello Concerto No. 1 in C with soloist Li-Wei Qin, a Chinese-Australian cellist of remarkable talent. He had an astonishing feeling for the music as if he was at one with his instrument. And perhaps it is in his DNA – his father was once Principal Cellist with the Shanghai Symphony and his mother a concert pianist. No surprise then that he grew up playing both instruments before eventually choosing to specialise in the cello. 

This really was a Concerto that allowed the soloist to shine with its flourishes and exuberance, and the wonderful contrasts between the faster first and third movements and the slower second. The communication between soloist and conductor was almost telepathic as they reached for the heavens, sweeping the players of the ASO along with them. 

After such a dramatic display, it seemed the audience needed the interval to catch their breath just as much as the orchestra. The second half opened with a work that literally reaches skyward, in this case exploring Ciel d’hiver, the winter sky. Composer Kaija Saariaho originally wrote this in 2002 as part of a larger work, Orion; she re-orchestrated it in 2013 to stand alone.

This was the Australian premiere performance of this mystical and soulful work and sadly came three weeks after the composer died in Paris, some two-and-a-half years after being diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer. She was 70 when she died and had continued her active involvement with music throughout her illness.

Ciel d’hiver was a meditation on the stars and the heavens as viewed from an icy snowfield on a winter’s night in Finland. It may not have been snowing in Adelaide, but it was suitably cold and bleak! There was some especially fine work for the harp, played here by Guest Principal Lucy Reeves.  

After all that musical magic, there was still time and energy for the final piece, the achingly beautiful Symphony No. 7 in C written by Jean Sibelius in 1924. This was indeed a masterwork that has often been described as elemental. Composed as a single movement, this was his last symphony even though many Sibelius scholars believe he may have written at least some sections of an eighth. 

Conductor Peltokoski chose to play the Sibelius without the customary break for applause between the works, smoothly segueing into the Seventh from Ciel d’hiver as if that were a prelude. Apart from causing a little confusion in the audience, this did highlight how works separated by the passage of time can still share a remarkable musical resonance. An acclaimed pianist, as well as a superb conductor, Peltokoski is currently studying piano at the Sibelius Academy, and that affinity imbued the music. It is hard to believe he is still only 22 years old; this is definitely a career to watch.

Read: Theatre review: Tiny Beautiful Things, Bille Brown Theatre

Skyward offered Adelaide audiences a wonderful opportunity to see two renowned international music stars together. It also gave the players of the ASO an opportunity to play at their very best, encouraged skyward by a remarkable soloist and an inspirational conductor. 

Skyward, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Adelaide Town Hall

The ASO with Conductor Tarmo Peltokoski and Soloist Li-Wei Qin, cello.

Skyward played at the Adelaide Town Hall on 23-24 June 2023.

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.