Respighi’s Roman Trilogy and A Clockwork Orange and Beyond

Two concerts in one day! Two different orchestras and two very different performances.

Respighi’s Roman Trilogy was another concert chosen as part of a subscription package so I could get tickets to the Anne-Sophie Mutter concert of John Williams music later in the year. I’d heard the Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform The Pines of the Appian Way at the Showgrounds many, many years ago and rather liked it. When it comes to classical music, I’m more a fan of tone poems than pure performance pieces.

Ottorino Respighi was an Italian composer who was active during the early Twentieth Century and was briefly trained by Rimsky-Korsakov, composer of my last attended concert, Scheherazade. Like Rimsky-Korsakov, Respighi writes with a full orchestral sound that is the basis for many of my beloved film composers who succeeded his generation.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, performing at the Sydney Opera House, was under the baton of English conductor John Wilson. Wilson has performed Respighi’s works to great international acclaim with a focus on bringing out the nuances of his music.

Although the concert is billed as a trilogy, the three pieces stand alone, describing different aspects of Respighi’s beloved Rome and its surrounds.

The concert begins with the last of the three works. Roman Festivals, consisting of four parts, Circuses, The Jubilee, October Harvest Festival and Epiphany. Following the was the The Fountains of Rome (The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn, The Triton Fountain in the Morning, The Fountain of Trevi at Midday, The Villa Medici Fountain at Sunset) and concluding with Pines of Rome (The Pines of the Villa Borghese, Pines Near a Catacomb, The Pines of the Janiculum, The Pines of the Appian Way).

As I am not very familiar with the music and couldn’t read along and listen, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish what was what. Which is fine, I was free to listen and enjoy to my own imagination. As it was described in the introduction, the music was cinematic before that phrase was coined and it was easy to imagine accompanying a movie.

There were many moments when I could hear the influence of this music on modern film composition. Respighi uses lush orchestration and a wide range of dynamic elements, from brass fanfares played by musicians on a high balcony overlooking the orchestra and thrilling percussion played by a section of nine musicians, to quiet, reflective passages. These I liked the best, with the orchestra playing a rich drone, purposeful, evocative.

At times I did lose interest, a lack of themes to latch on to and too many late nights leaving me a bit sleepy. But one thing Respighi is good at is a thrilling ending, so there was no chance of nodding off for too long.

Did I love the music? Not on this outing, but I think it could do with some future listens.

Once the concert was complete, I headed out as quickly as I could. The audience were, in a large part, elderly, and I suspect many had come of the massive cruise liner docked at Circular Quay. Others were obviously younger tourists just wanting a chance to view attend a concert in Australia’s most famous building.

No lunch, because the offices of the CBD had emptied for a Friday midday meal and most places were just too expensive or long with queues. I made my way up to The Sydney Recital Hall at Angel Place for A Clockwork Orange and Beyond with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

This was my first concert in the Recital Hall and with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, though I had listened to director Richard Tognetti’s compositions and performances on the Master and Commander soundtrack many times.

Neither have I seen A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s controversial and violent film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name. The film’s soundtrack featured classical music and Wendy Carlos’ pioneering synthesizer score. The combination of the two, the acoustic classical music and the electronic synthesizer, formed the basis of this very unusual chamber music concert.

Accompanying the ACO’s strings and percussion was the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble.

My experience with electronic music basically begins with the digital MIDI voice and sample age rather than analogue synths. Yet in more recent times they have revived in popularity, with analogue synths and processing featuring on works by Ludwig Goranssen and Natalie Holt amongst many others. And, of course, who can forget one of the kings of the synth, the late Vangelis!

The Recital Hall is a more intimate venue that the Opera House with a much smaller stage. I was seated in a side stall overlooking the left of the stage, right over Richard Tognetti, affording great views of the performers. Interestingly, the acoustic string musicians had their music on tablets (iPads?) whereas the electronic synth performers used paper sheet music!

The concert began with the strings performing Franz Waxman’s Symphonietta: I. Lento – Allegro. Waxman was a film composer during Hollywood’s supposed Golden Age, but I’m not familiar with the piece. Then it is the synths turn with Vangelis’s main title music to Blade Runner. Strangely, they begin as on the album with the pre-recorded but out of place voice of Harrison Ford’s character performing the Esper scan, but it is still evokes the entry into that amazing world.

I noticed that, rather than using the keyboards, both Will Gregory and his colleague Simon Haram performed much of the time on an electronic wind instrument. When keyboards were used, the keyboards were often used singlehandedly, leaving the other hand free to adjust settings.

We stayed in the science fiction world with Wendy Carlos’s Scherzo and Main Theme from Tron. From there we moved on to her interpretation of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G major with the Adagio and Allegro movements. This allowed the strings and the synths to combine, with some interesting electronic results.

Hans Zimmer’s Cornfield Chase from Interstellar is another piece I am familiar with and it had even featured on the morning’s playlist during the drive to the station. I can’t say that I found the ACO’s interpretation particularly good, but it should be noted that the aim was not to achieve verisimilitude with the original versions. It was not expected in this performance and, indeed, it was refreshing to hear something fresh.

Next was Delia Derbyshire’s Blue Veils and Golden Sands. This is simple and atonal music. I didn’t really enjoy it, but it was fascinating to contrast it with the Bach earlier. Just looking at the sheet music below I could tell there were a lot of notes in the Brandenburg Allegro and, while I don’t find myself emotionally moved by Bach, I could appreciate the complexity. With the synth music it’s not about the complexity of the melody, but of the sound itself, playing with the characteristics of the output to achieve the desired result.

The program notes describe each chamber orchestra player’s instrument and each one of those produces harmonies and resonances dependent largely on the intrinsic characteristic of the instrument. With synths, many of those characteristics are controllable by the player via the dials and interface. A trained ear would appreciate such things.

Derbyshire, in conjunction with Ron Grainer, is more famous for the composition that followed, the theme from Doctor Who, a series I grew up with and continue to watch. Interestingly, I’ve only heard it played live by orchestras. Today’s version was performed both by the synths and the strings and attracted the loudest applause of any of the pieces.

Olivier Messiaen’s Oraison followed, I don’t remember much about that, and the session ended with more Vangelis, this time the famous Main Titles from Chariots of Fire. I enjoyed that.

After the interval, we had my favourite of all composers, John Williams with Reflections and Blood Moon from Images. I’ve never heard this played live before. It is possibly his most atonal and avant garde of his film scores, though it lacked some of the really strange sound effects of the original album. Blood Moon is a more traditional chamber orchestra piece, but I really enjoyed it. Williams combines the complex richness of a classical score with pleasing melodies in a way that was lacking from all the other music I heard today.

It was more Switched on Bach with his Prelude and Fugue in C minor as adapted for the synth by Wendy Carlos, followed by the Chorale Prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jeus Christ” as adapted for use in the film Solaris by Eduard Artemyev. I have not seen this movie, or the George Clooney remake and to be honest I was flagging by then.

I think it was during the former that Hazel Mills added her distorted vocals to the performance.

I may have had a little sleep by the time we reached the final sequence of classical music from A Clockwork Orange as adapted by Wendy Carlos. I can’t remember the Henry Purcell piece, but did wake up for the brief performance of the Overture from William Tell. It ended with an excerpt from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, including pre-recorded choir and both strings and synths playing.

It was certainly a rousing ending for the day and received very loud applause from the audience.

I very much enjoyed the Roman Trilogy without loving it and there were plenty of elements in A Clockwork Orange and Beyond to take pleasure from as well. More than that, it gave me a lot to think about with music. I like both orchestral and electronic music, but for different reasons and different situations. I’m not sure that I am particularly in love with old analogue synths, but I can understand why people enjoy playing with them. The ability to control the sound, the generate something unique and new without pretending it should be something that it is not is something surely attractive to a creative mind.

Fortunately there is enough room in the world of music for both the acoustic and the electronic.

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