In a program conceived by composer and conductor John Adams, Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, Adams’ own Absolute Jest and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 sounded in sympathetic resonance with Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England, albeit in reverse order. Even though Mr Adams himself was unable to conduct the concert due to a composition commitment, OSESP invited Estonian Arvo Volmer — of Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Estonian National Opera fame — to stand in for composer.

Arvo Volmer © Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
Arvo Volmer
© Adelaide Symphony Orchestra

Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite was premiered in 1896. It presents four tone poems conjured from scenes of the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Although the composer’s first intent was to create a mythological operatic cycle of Wagnerian proportions, he eventually opted for symphonic format, paving the way for the creation of his celebrated Finlandia. Mr Volmer, who is very familiar with Sibelius’ orchestral writing, held the strings in softer dynamics, allowing the brass and woodwind sections to break over them in waves. By subduing the strings, Mr Volmer placed them in a more ethereal context, reminiscent of Ives’ The Housatonic at Stockbridge.

Adams’ Absolute Jest is scored for orchestra and solo string quartet, with harp, celesta and piano tuned differently from the both ensembles. The work, shaped from of small Beethovenian quotes such as the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth symphonies, as well as from his last string quartets (especially the Große Fuge and string quartets Op.131  and Op.135), sets these musical fragments to interfere and enhance each other — as if “in a hall of mirrors”, as the composer has stated.

Such reflective character is present from the very first bars, particularly in the way Adams makes use of repetitions throughout the ensemble as echoes reverberating through timeless corridors — echoes that reminisced of Ives’ second movement, Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut. The orchestral writing is precise and of top quality, managing to conjugate the seemingly unbalanceable ensembles, and the strength and vitality of the string quartet is never lost in the oceanic mass of the orchestra. However, the composition’s minimalistic approach, with several layers of repetition, eventually does become overbearing. Mr Volmer, conducting with precise and calm gestures, never seemed to get washed over by the score, but kept a steady hand in steering the ensembles ashore.

After the intermission, Mr Volmer returned to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major. Premiered in December 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau (a confrontation in the last days of October, between Karl Philipp von Wrede’s Austro-Bavarian corps and Napoleon's retreating French), the work was recognized as one of Beethoven’s masterpieces — its second movement Allegretto being regularly programmed or encored by many an orchestra, striking a clear relation with the first movement in Ives’ Three Places...: The "St.-Gaudens" in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment).

Reinforcing Adams’ minimalistic approach, Mr Volmer emphasised the clear-cut rhythms of the first movement, highlighting Beethoven’s roots in Classicism. The second movement turned the orchestra into a church organ: the first iterations of the movement’s theme sounding quasi-religious, forcing the orchestra to come out of this makeshift organ, unfolding in its many shapes and contours before returning to it. Reiterating the connection between the works programmed, Mr Volmer did an excellent job in reinforcing the dialog between Adams and Beethoven, by focusing on the distances suggested by the third movement’s echoes and delays.

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