The first of the 2018 Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Master Series concerts began with the Tannhäuser overture, a reminder that principal conductor Nicholas Carter is destined to become a leading Wagner conductor of the 21st century. Then came Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium to honour the centenary of the composer’s birth, and finally Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony”, because the Adelaide Town Hall organ had not been played since Carter became principal conductor. All three pieces are gems in their own right.

Nicholas Carter
© Annette Koroll

Tannhäuser and Serenade after Plato’s Symposium are loosely connected by a love theme. The Tannhäuser overture contrasts the titular character’s conflicted love for the sensuous Venusberg and the saintly Elisabeth, interspersed with the theme relating to the pilgrims, who for love of God are on their journey to Rome. Meanwhile Bernstein’s Serenade is based on Plato’s account of a group of distinguished Greek gentlemen’s drunken dinner discussion about love.

The concert began with confident, gentle conducting by Carter, who with steady hand and graceful control smoothly opened up the Tannhäuser overture, first with the winds, then effortlessly transitioning to the strings and on to the dramatic crescendo of the “Pilgrims’ Chorus”, encouraging the violinists as they faded and emerged, striking bold strokes from their bows. As the overture began to highlight Tannhäuser’s conflict between sensual and sacred love, Carter lead dramatically; like a balloon deflating, transitioning back to the pilgrims’ theme, to once again powering up with thundering trombones and frenetic strings, then fading away to a restful conclusion. Carter’s conducting of Wagner was sensitive. He should do more – he is a natural at it.

This was only the third time in forty years that the Adelaide Symphony had performed Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, and I am old enough to have heard them all. This is arguably his most satisfying composition. Playing a 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius, Canadian violin soloist James Ehnes created a haunting mellifluousness, with richly intense high notes. He blended beautifully with the other violins of the orchestra and enlivened his playing with swaying body movements. He was able to give each of Plato’s five speakers their own personality. Phaedrus came across as meditative, reflective and cerebral. Aristophanes displayed more colour in his discourse, with a delicate touch. Eryximachus had a lot of lively things to get off his chest in a short time. Agathon lagged slightly, yet seemed cogent, persuasive, a listener – even a convincer. Meanwhile Socrates seemed to be saying that love was adventurous, enriching, all-embracing, energetic and satisfying, all to a tune with a definite Gershwin-esque flavour. The Serenade ended frenetically, as if the orchestra were attempting to see how fast they could possibly go.

Finally the Saint-Saëns “Organ Symphony” – always last in any concert it appears and for good reason. Saint-Saëns saw it as the epitome of his composing. It is charged with emotion, inspiring any audience and sending them away excited and uplifted. Carter led the orchestra into a gentle start – smooth and seductive, measured, not rushed – with understated strings gradually building to a crescendo. He created great separations of light and shade, letting each instrument in the orchestra clearly stand out. The first movement’s second half was very measured, as the organ’s low reverberating notes vibrated into every cranny of the Hall.

After the orchestra boldly began the second movement, it then settled down to build a performance that gave time for reflection. The second movement brought out the power and majesty of the Adelaide Town Hall organ, under the control of Peter Kelsall. Cymbals clashed magnificently, four hands played the piano and it all came to a marvellous conclusion. It is said that while this symphony owes much to the Gregorian Dies irae its conclusion is full of hope and the promise of resurrection. If so, how good must that resurrection be!