November 14, 2011 at 10:08 PMAfter hearing Lara St. John's West Coast premiere of the Violin Concerto No. 1 "Australian Postcards" by Matthew Hindson, I did something I rarely do upon hearing something for the very first time: I ran out at intermission and bought the recording.
I liked it, and I wanted to hear it again.
Lara was performing with the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Cal. (near Los Angeles), with conductor Sarah Ioannides, who also leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Lara's 2007 world premiere recording of the same work.
I found Hindson's concerto both familiar and challenging; in a musical language that I understand, yet full of new thoughts and ideas. Certainly it sounds modern, but sometimes it's modern like a movie score, and other times it's modern like an edgy new symphony.
As the title suggests, the violin concerto paints three different pictures from Australia, beginning at Kooragang Island with an enormous wind turbine. The program describes "three huge blades on this turbine that move at tremendous speed. Standing nearby, it seems hard to believe that the whole structure won't disintegrate and decapitate everyone, such is its power and speed."
The piece begins with a loud and dissonant rumble, which had me a little worried. I confess, I'm not up to 45 minutes of ear-bending noise. But not to fear, it was just those turbines revving up.
I'd never seen Lara St. John play live, and I was immediately taken with her ability to convey movement in the music, with no feeling of fuss over individual notes. To be honest, I was skeptical that a wind turbine could be depicted in music, but as I let it wash over me, I did get a sense of riding the wind, of an enormous gear winding and grinding into motion, of whirling around in three. The violin is rhythmic and slidey, and the orchestra contributes train whistles, wah-wah noises, even a sort of quack-quack (geese flying by?) At one point the orchestra plays a whole chorus of whining "wah-wahs," kind of like a swarm of flatulent bumblebees, which did indeed conjure for me the image of something enormous winding into gear. This all ends in a big Bartok pizzicato (very loud -- hope this is not the decapitation!) then a spinning bariolage, with the solo violin rolling across all strings against a windy-sounding background. By the end Lara was completely out of breath -- panting! She really gave it all.
Then came the second movement, meant to paint a picture of both the idyllic setting and depressing reality (boredom, isolation, lack of opportunity) of a small down in Tasmania called Westaway. Here the orchestra became more pastoral, the violin more melodic, Lara playing with graceful agility. This movement made use of 29 percussion instruments, and occasionally they got loud. Lara seemed more than a soloist, she also seemed an advocate for this work, the way she knew it so well and channeled its energy. I enjoyed the way this movement was crafted; the violin seemed to speak and create melodies and gestures that were then echoed, amplified or carried over by the rest of the orchestra. The ending faded to niente -- a well-executed quiet moment.
Third movement began with a blast from the orchestra, followed by a tentative pizzicato from the solo violin, who plucked out the melody that would be carried throughout the movement. Then it was off to the races on a jazzy and energetic ride. This movement was meant to showcase Grand Final Day, a celebration of sport, probably Australian football and/or rugby, but I'd swear I heard a "Toreador" quotation in there! This movement was a mad dash, very physical and exciting, teetering between the roaring crowd and the individual display by the violin, which, when the orchestra hushed, would jazz out and show off. In the end came a standing ovation, and audience members walking away, whistling that jazzy tune from the last movement.
At any rate, as you can see, I really liked this concerto and think it's worth a listen, worth considering for playing, too.
Here's the LA Times review: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/11/music-review-lara-st-john-new-west-symphony.html
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