For a composer who embraces the “popular” in music, using the subtitle High Art for his trumpet concerto is clearly a provocative but bold statement. Australian composer Graham Koehne has quoted Noël Coward’s play Private Lives, commenting: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”. However, despite the “popular” musical inspiration behind Koehne’s composition, few could claim that it is not “high art”. In fact, I would go further and state that his trumpet concerto gives credit to Coward’s claim, although there is no way you could call Koehne’s music “cheap”.

Graham Koehne © Sean Skitterall
Graham Koehne
© Sean Skitterall

Introducing the “high art” them, the concert opened with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. Indeed this work too mixes “high art” with “cheap” music. The piece concludes with a full orchestral version of Gaudeamus igitur, a mediaeval student drinking song. This was given a rousing rendition by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, which despite occasional moments of slightly dodgy ensemble, was performed convincingly and provided a fitting curtain-raiser to the evening’s entertainment.

Entertainment is very much the word when writing about the performances of James Morrison, who was the trumpet soloist in Koehne’s Concerto. He is a performer in every sense of the word and one of unique virtuosity. Equally at home in jazz clubs, having performed with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles, Morrison brought some of this world into the concert hall, where he performed with great showmanship, clearly revelling in his skill, but never in an ostentatious way. He had a great rapport with conductor and orchestra, frequently exchanging knowing glances with them, enjoying the many wonderful musical moments Koehne’s piece offered.

Koehne’s trumpet concerto is a one-movement work, which consists of an initial extended prelude followed by a series of variations based on three themes. The piece draws on a variety of “popular” inspirations – Koehne claims “I find enjoyment in music from the strangest, ‘lowest’ sources: cartoons, pop, lounge music... Unlike most of my colleagues in the world of classical music, I don’t discount this music”. Such an unashamed confession is refreshing to see as such a wide variety of inspirations certainly gives Koehne’s work a great richness. This mix of the popular is blended with a heavy flavour of Latin American music, which has performers and audience members infectiously tapping their feet. James Morrison and the Sydney Symphony entered into the spirit of this music with great character, making this performance the highlight of the evening. Morrison’s trumpet playing was extraordinary, particular his playing of the frequent, high notes in the score, which were all faultless and crystal clear. The jazz encore which followed was also highly enjoyable, although it was slightly spoiled by a rather long, unimaginative drum solo.

The evening’s guest conductor was the Estonian-born Kristjan Järvi. He conducted the whole program with great confidence, frequently turning around to the audience and to his players exchanging smiles and knowing glances. It is always refreshing to see a musician clearly revelling in the music and sharing his enthusiasm with others, but I have a slight aversion to conductors who do this too much. While Järvi led with real authority, I did find him slightly distracting, which is a shame as it draws attention away from the music, which should be the main focus.

The whole of the second half was devoted to Rachmaninov’s final orchestral work, his Symphonic Dances. Again, despite slight lapses in ensemble this was given a highly sensitive reading. The opening movement allowed the full orchestra to shine in its opening theme, before giving way to some trademark Rachmaninov lyricism. There were some wonderfully wistful solos from the woodwind instruments, including a beautifully played saxophone solo. The trumpet fanfares in the second movement had an appropriate sinister quality to them, while the waltz themes, which characterise most of the movement where played with a warm swagger. The final movement, probably the most valedictory of the whole work, was inflected with a sombre nature and brought the evening to a thoughtful close with its heavy use of the Dies irae. However, the evening was to end in party fashion as we were provided with a rousing rendition of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture as the encore. This was the best orchestral playing of the evening and showed off the virtuosity of the whole orchestra.

The evening’s concert was the first of a series of four entitled Meet the Music, a wonderful initiative by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This mini-series is designed for school students to attend – the concerts start at 6:30pm rather than the usual 8pm, there is a compère who introduces the works, and there are special student rates for school parties. It was great to see a large proportion of students in the audience and reacting so enthusiastically to the music, proving that classical music is alive and well among the younger generations.