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Review: Canberra Symphony Orchestra,  Johannes Fritzsch, conductor, Phoebe Russell, double bass, Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, 2 May 2018.

Canberra Symphony Orchestra,  Johannes Fritzsch, conductor, Phoebe Russell, double bass, Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, 2 May 2018.

This concert was the Canberra debut of the German conductor Johannes Fritzsch who has had extensive experience in Germany and other European countries as well as elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand.

The most successful item on the program was the first, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.  This work is not the easiest to perform. The transparent string writing quickly displays any lapses in intonation or ensemble. Fortunately, there were none. The conductor kept his forces well under control and the effect was very beautiful. The solo violin, viola and cello playing was excellent throughout.  Moreover, in the more agitated sections of the work, the conductor refused to let the orchestra play too loudly and the sound never became too thick or coarse.

In the second work, a Concerto for Double Bass by Johannes Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813), Phoebe Russell, from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, revealed herself as a consummate virtuoso and received a well-deserved ovation.  The music, which was enjoyable and well received by the audience, might be described as second-rate Haydn. It is not surprising that there are few concertos for the double bass. The low tessitura of the music means that the solo part cannot emerge as clearly or with such force as it would in a violin or even a cello concerto. Despite the excellent playing of the soloist, the effect was sometimes more like growling than music.  But, on the whole, the performance was a great success.

After the interval, the orchestra played Morning Star by Paul Stanhope (born 1992). This work is, according to the composer, “a  personal response to the rich traditional indigenous music making in the Northern territory”.  It is obviously the work of a talented and professional composer, but it seemed too brief and too repetitious to make a lasting or firm impression. The performance seemed excellent and well- rehearsed.

What should have been the best item on the program – Beethoven’s Second Symphony – turned out to be the least successful.  The performance as a whole was far too loud, as many performances are everywhere today, and sound of the brass and percussion, with their blaring and thumping, meant that the overall sound was muddy. The beautiful second movement, possibly the loveliest that Beethoven ever wrote, suffered less because of the lighter orchestration, but by then the damage had been done and the final movements were as noisy as the first.  It seemed strange that the conductor singled out the percussion and brass players for applause after the performance. –   Richard Gate

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