Those in the medical profession, it is said, like two things: good red wine and music. While there was no red wine on show this past Sunday, there was a great display of the profession’s love of music. And their, by no means incidental, preparedness to support worthwhile causes; in this case Youth Off The Streets and the Institute of Sports Medicine at Westmead Children’s Hospital.
The Australian Doctors’ Orchestra is a large, potentially unwieldy beast of some 150 players who come together from all over Australia for one long-weekend a year, principally to make music together, but not without a fair element of social activity around their intense rehearsal schedule. The question for the music lover, faced with the choice whether to attend a performance by such a group is vexed: this is not the Australian World Orchestra; is it a question of “how bad?” rather than “how good?’; the cause is good; there may be familial duties at play; oh, dear, there may be speeches and the inevitable raffle. Your correspondent’s reason: a family member was playing.
But that reason is really insufficient. An argument can be mounted for a small shift in perception, embracing the thought that it’s ok to set different standards for community musical groups. Accept that it is not the Sydney Symphony, reassess the appropriate level of critical analysis and just settle down to have a good time listening to the music, warts and all. Maybe, just maybe, you will enjoy it.
Sunday’s program was, in the event, enjoyable. And for sound musical reasons. The program was clearly selected with the nature of the orchestra given consideration. For a once a year event it is necessary to involve every member of the orchestral family, from tuba and contra bassoon to piccolo, harp and even organ. Big sounding works were the order. The program started with Walton’s Crown Imperial March. A “best of British” work, written for coronations and royal weddings, it was a good starting point, with technical demands well within the competence of the orchestra. What it did reveal was a surprisingly robust string tone with a quality of which the players should be proud. Weight of numbers is no substitute for good intonation and warm tone. Here the strings were happily devoid of the muddiness a lesser group might deliver. Conductor Warwick Stengards kept the brass well under control and avoided the common fault of community brass sections who, more often than not, make up for all those tacet sections by performing quadruple forte whenever they put mouthpiece to lip. And, for the first time in the concert, the magnificent William Hill/Roger Pogson organ delighted the audience. It was a heart-warming moment at the end of the piece to hear (and feel) the mighty Diapasons roar.
The second work on the program, Brahms’ 1st Piano concerto, presented a few more problems for the orchestra in terms of balance. It is a tough ensemble piece, where partnership and tonal effect play a big role. The crowd-pleasing pianism of the Beethoven, Liszt or Rachmaninoff works is replaced by a more symphonic approach. Soloist Benjamin Martin played his part with assurance and generosity. His undoubted capabilities were very much on display.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations concluded the concert. The fine string tone was again in evidence, and the viola section stood out in their only solo outing. It was a pity the same could not be said of the cello solo in the twelfth variation, perhaps a result of nerves on the day. Certainly there were ensemble and technical issues in the more complex variations, but all things considered it was a pretty good effort overall and certainly an enjoyable experience for the audience.
The encore piece, Berlioz Hungarian March might, from an audience perspective, have been left unplayed. Sometimes it is better to leave the fourth course uneaten, particularly when those 32 foot Diapasons contribute to the end of the third. But it was probably fun to play, so perhaps your correspondent should not quibble.
Conductor Warwick Stengards has, it seems, that special ability to work effectively with amateurs. It is rare to find conductors with the patience and skills to draw out the very best in very limited rehearsal time. The orchestra clearly responded to his approach. It is understood they would gladly welcome him back in the future.