Music review: Symphony Series 5, Vitality, Adelaide Town Hall

A musical Mount Everest and a starry, starry night.

The latest performance in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Series 5 was Vitality, featuring Beethoven’s one and only violin concerto – a giant of a work. Written in 1806, in the fervent period when he wrote many of his greatest and most mature works, this is often referred to as “a musical Mount Everest”. And Beethoven himself is indeed a “Colossus of Music”, not only for the vast depth and breadth of his musical output but because of his unique style and daring composition techniques, using “a language no other composer before him had spoken“. 

It was no surprise then to see a full house at the Adelaide Town Hall to hear this much-loved masterpiece of the classical repertoire performed by Pinchas Zukerman, a good friend of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and a long-standing Artist-in-Association. At 75, he is still one of the world’s most acclaimed violinists and has an extraordinary wealth of musical knowledge and experience. 

From the sublime beauty of its gentle opening, the concerto explored a series of expressive melodies and a vast terrain of considerable emotional depth. Written in three movements, but with the slow movement segueing seamlessly into the superb finale, it demonstrated an exceptional combination of technical brilliance and profound musicality. 

Taking on the dual roles of conductor and solo violin, it’s no wonder Zukerman needed to mop his brow at the end of the first allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too fast) first movement. His playing was characterised by an exquisite blend of precision, warmth and expressiveness, bringing out the full emotional depth in the music. 

While the solo violin is absolutely the star of the show, especially with Zukerman’s seriously dextrous and fluent playing, it was the profound dialogue with the orchestra that was really impressive. Using his bow as a baton in the few passages where he was not playing, and displaying his extraordinary understating of the music, Zukerman really did allow the orchestra to shine and brought out the very best in the players of the ASO. 

But that is to begin at the end, with the Beethoven making up the entire second half of the concert. Before interval, we heard three rather different pieces, all conducted with flair by Zukerman, who displayed a colourful and relaxed style on the podium.

The first was the Australian premiere performance of Starburst, a captivating and vibrant work by the contemporary US composer and violinist Jessie Montgomery. Coming in at just four minutes, this piece was bursting with rhythmic energy, brilliantly colourful orchestration and clear dynamic contrasts. I’m not sure if Montgomery has any plans to extend Starburst, but I would love to hear it developed further.

Next came the effervescence of Ballade by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a wonderful composer who enjoyed enormous popularity in the early 1900s, but is performed more rarely these days. Indeed, the program notes admit that this is the ASO’s first playing of the Ballade. The woodwinds and timpani did much of the work and gave the piece its grounding, enabling it to be both vigorous and romantic. 

The rather short first half was rounded out with eight minutes of Giuseppe Verdi’s La forza del destino (The force of destiny). Although written as the overture to this tragic opera, it is now often played as a stand-alone concert work. And Verdi certainly packs a lot into his music from its solemn and mysterious introduction, featuring a haunting theme played by the woodwinds, to the dramatic brass fanfares and fast-paced strings. There were moments of intense passion and deep sorrow in a rich tapestry of musical emotions, all leading to a triumphant finale.

And so to the end again. The audience thanked Pinchas Zukerman with robust applause as he “high-fived” a delighted concert-master Kate Suthers and a few of the violins front-of-stage.  

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The enthusiasm from the audience was rewarded with a delightful Brahms Lullaby for encore. And then it was out into the cold night air, replete from sharing a superbly polished performance, and only sad that it was all over in such a (comparatively) brief time!

Symphony Series 5, Vitality was performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with Pinchas Zukerman, conductor and soloist, on 28-29 July 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.