(Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Festival Theatre, Saturday 29 October 2016)
On this warm spring evening, a presage to summer, Adelaide’s creaking, soi-disant theatre played triumphant host to an evening of welcome nostalgia: the legendary Jeffrey Tate, conducting the grand and magisterial prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (described as “one of the great milestones of music…if Wagner had written nothing else this one would have put him up there with the greats.”*) The ASO, celebrating its 80th birthday, responded to Tate (who conducted the seminal Adelaide Ring Cycle in 1998) as they would have to Bülow, who conducted the Mastersinger premiere in Munich (curiously, not Nuremberg as Wagner would have preferred). In other words, they rose mightily to the occasion.
At that 1868 Summer premiere in Munch, Richard Strauss’ father, Franz, was in the orchestra, playing the horn (the brass and woodwind are of course the stars of the Mastersinger prelude). According to authority, Franz Strauss considered Wagner a “drunken ruffian”** but would nevertheless have appreciated the power of the piece, and its rapturous reception, replicated this evening in Adelaide. His son, we know, was a fan of The Master, and in a tasteful aside Tate and the ASO gave us one of his contentious and arguably overblown ‘tone poems’, Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’), possibly inspired by a whisk of Wagner’s monumental ambition, with a dash of Beethoven’s Eroica. More on that later.
Tate is our James Levine. Bent and twisted by Spina Bifida, he hobbled on stage to rapturous applause and took charge with authority, discretion and manifest tenderness. The ASO love him – it’s obvious. Whereas conductors such as Solti come from the Max Reinhardt school, Tate has reportedly stated: “You can’t terrify people any more; you have to do it with love.” In his hands, the three pieces given were impeccable. Hunched in his chair, walking-cane swinging jauntily from the dais rail, in total command – here was a real hero.
If you are going to put Wagner on the bill, you need big names alongside. And so with the superb Jayson Gillham on piano, we had Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a pretty, intricate, quietly urgent piece that would move even those with a tin ear (or those who only know Eroica from the record player in Norman Bates’ house.)
Which brings us back to A Hero’s Life. Despite L telling me “don’t stress about Strauss”, your correspondent was dreading the second-half featuring one of his bêtes noires, and was duly treated to a chaotic kitchen sink of discordance, false crescendos and incongruous blurts that intruded like un-supressed ring-tones. Many in the crowd grew restive at the spectacle of a great conductor and a great orchestra sweating and straining with great fidelity to deliver this decadent shower of shite.
No matter: still a great evening, capped by a short, sweet and humorous 80th birthday celebration (led by the ASO’s Managing Director, Vincent Ciccarello) replete with balloons and artificial cake. “Here’s to the next 80 years!”
* Forman, D. The Good Opera Guide (1994) p. 447.
** Steen, M., The Great Composers (2003) p. 479.