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Old dog, New World

SOSL New World Concert

Arriving at Ladies’ College at the seventh hour, game-faced and Chooty drawn, I was informed that the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka’s New World Concert was sold out.*

While a few hundred rupees for an evening’s live music remains a pretty good deal, I have to confess this eventuality had not occurred to me. But I was pleased to see the event attracting a crowd, relieved to get a return from a righteous absentee, and sorry to see that other iniquitous no-show-ers had let their seats simply go to waste. (For shame!)

Though they put their best foot forward from the outset, the SOSL did not (does not) quite have the coherence or verve demanded by Edmundo Villani-Côrtes’ Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (essentially Western Classical tradition, with Brazilian flavouring). The brass and wind sections, especially, struggled with the punchy rhythms of the opening ‘Gingado’ (though the percussion were conspicuously precise). The ‘Moderato’ was more solid – although I find I now experience a default hint-of-Orson-Welles nostalgia in any and every SOSL slow movement [see all previous reviews].

The ‘Allegro’ is heavy with the roaming vigour of early C.20th Americana – Gershwin, Copland, Grofé et al. – and the orchestra went at it. The result was not always four-square (it’s Latin Americana, after all), but the mellower, sunset-over-broad-flowing-river moments were good, and even the mistuning of the horns [also see all previous] seemed somehow to contribute to the melancholic flavour.

The end came out of nowhere, rather, and I was left reflecting that a) it was a smart move to begin with this lesser-known Concerto, and b) it was hardly the orchestra’s fault that the music itself doesn’t quite seem to go the distance.

Their lack of indulgence to visiting flautist Celina Charlier, however, was reprehensible. The Brazilian could not have been expected to blow much more life into the piece without sacrificing the ever-fragile tone of her instrument; but for the most part the solo line did not stand out, which rendered the whole business somewhat underwhelming.

Conversely, the ensemble seemed impelled by soprano Tharanga Goonetilleke’s authority over the two square feet of stage she was permitted to call her own. Her voice was full-throated and -lunged without ever sounding forced, and her physical performance active enough for the four operatic excerpts to retain the excitement of their theatrical origin. (The imaginative failure of the programmers to consider looking for four songs also from the new world we will ignore for now.)

Goonetilleke’s flexibility, in particular, was impressive. Sparkling and graceful in Gounod’s ‘Jewel song’; vivid in Puccini’s ‘Quando m’en vo’’ (Boheme, inevitably); mournfully beautiful in the ‘Porgi amor’ from Figaro (otherwise a bad choice: no offence to Mozart, but shorn of its context the aria is underpowered and absent its natural trajectory).

The highlight, though, was the utterly sensual ‘Piangero la sorte mia’ from Handel’s incomparable Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Both musically and emotionally, Goonetilleke’s torment was pitch-perfect. Moreover, she had the confidence not to over-reach: the da capo was a model of restraint.

I wasn’t banking on enjoying the second half quite as much. Even with the watchful and experienced Gregory Rose at the helm, the headline item, Dvorák’s tumultous Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, seemed like a voyage too far for the SOSL and all who sail in her.

But it seems you can teach an old sea-dog new tricks. Some, anyway.

The strings rose out of the mist and the horns pa-pah’d, firm but clear; the woodwind were appropriately tremulous; the tutti strings were a little effete, but nonetheless present and correct; on cue, the trumpets sounded the battle call, a clarion of terrible, crystalline beauty. Five stars, again, to the percussion.

It wasn’t all perfect, of course. Where the cellos led, the others followed (round the teepees, step in time!), but where the violins led the merry dance, things were prone to rushing. Perhaps they were disoriented by Rose’s habit (perfectly musical…) of conducting now downwards, now upwards (…but not necessarily very easy to follow).

But there were some nice touches: I particularly liked the billowing curtains at the moment when the spirits of the dead appear to invade the security of the campfire. And on the crest of the great crescendo I found myself smiling. It was an ungenerous ‘I didn’t think you had it in you’ smile; but they did.

After the final cascade there was applause. Which was fair enough. This once.

Rose sped up the ‘Largo’ a tad. The cor anglais was not pretty; but it was haunting and rustic and honest – think Jeremy Irons’ ‘playing’ in The Mission – and thus, I suppose, contextually ‘right’. The string interventions were still a little thin, frankly. But the audience were patient, and allowed the orchestra to marshal their forces. The rewards were in some delicate duetting between the first-desk cellists, sweet interplay between flute and clarinet, and good cavalry from the brass.

In the slide-show of the earth from the air (the continental US, anyway) that is Dvorák’s ‘Scherzo’ not all images got the same treatment, a few clunked in transmission, and some were slightly out of focus; but we definitely felt we’d been given the full tour (albeit with the wild Hinjuns safely air-brushed out).

And then the final ‘Allegro con fuoco’. Even the violins got out the elbow grease for this, even if they were not over-liberal in its application – and bravo (blastro!) to both trumpets and trombone (from somewhere I caught a pre-echo of Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice that I’ve never noted before: was it them?). The horns predictably wimped out of the vital slog to the summit, but by the end it was as broiling and stormy as could be mustered.

Which is to say… underpowered. Even stingy. Lacking in lustre. The Mayflower pilgrims were a parsimonious bunch, no doubt; but even they might have found two double basses to be unnecessarily cheap (the SOSL does have more). Oh, the notes were alright, sure; but the sound – played so safe – was, by and large, less New World than New Deal: snatching victory from the jaws of depression, but at (a) cost.

Same old, same old. Let’s have Gregory Rose back, though. Why, he even restored the National Anthem to its occasional glory!** [Yes, I’m going to keep treating it like a programmed item, as long as the SOSL keep on performing it.]

He also gave little intro speeches to each piece – about the Latino-orchestral tradition, say, or the fact that the New World was new to Dvorák too – and even, rather charmingly, sang a couple of musical examples. With his modernist black suit, and professorial white hair, he was like a kind of musical neo-Jesuit: Lennie Bernstein (oh, Lennie! Lennie!) meets Benjamin Britten. It shouldn’t really need someone to fly halfway round the world to deliver such Classicfmera, of course, but it beats shelling out for the programme and trying to decipher it in the dark.

* Yes, the Sunday Times has not been receiving its press tickets of late. Go figure.
** Is there a reason why this only happens under the foreign conductors? Is it because they actually treat it like a piece of music instead of a dreary obligation?

As printed*** in the SL Sunday Times.

*** without asterisks.

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