BWW Reviews: OUR DON: ADELAIDE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Unveiled a Brand New Work
Reviewed Thursday 14th August 2014
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra world premiered a new work by ex-patriot South Australian composer, Natalie Williams, Our Don - A Symphonic Tribute to Sir Donald Bradman, celebrating the late life and sporting career of the South Australian cricketer. Commissioned by the State Government of South Australia, it included archival video footage, and featured actor, Gary Sweet, as narrator, reading the text written by Sir Donald's biographer, Peter Allen. Born at Tanunda in South Australia's Barossa Valley, Natalie Williams is the Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition at Hugh Hodgson School of Music, University of Georgia.
Firstly, though, to honour the passing on the 8th August of the Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe, the Orchestra added an item to the evening and began with his 1963 piece, Small Town, which was inspired by the novel Kangaroo, by D. H. Lawrence, set in the small town of Thirroul to the south of Sydney. The work paints a picture of a small unchanging town, the intervention of The Last Post referring to the war memorial inscribed with the words, Lest We Forget, a reminder of those lost in the war. The orchestra, under their superb conductor, Luke Dollman, gave an impassioned and moving rendition of this work, no doubt moved by the loss of a much loved and valued member of the musical community.
Next came the official first piece on the programme, Graeme Koehne's Square Order Shuffle, the third of his Shaker Dances for string orchestra. Although based on a Shaker tune, Koehne's adaptation does not have the simplicity of the original, moving far away from the source material. Dance tunes have, of course, been adapted into orchestral scores in a tradition going back centuries, the Baroque suites being an obvious example. This lively work has considerable variation within its energetic and enthusiastic performance by the Orchestra and was well received by the audience. There a numerous links within this concert, and Keohne was once one of Natalie Williams's composition teachers.
Soprano, Greta Bradman, who featured in Argentinean composer, Osvaldo Golijov's, Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (2002), is the granddaughter of Sir Donald Bradman, a reminder that he was also a great lover of music and a fine pianist. These songs were written for the American soprano, Dawn Upshaw, with whom Golijov often collaborated, but Bradman makes them her own from those first few a capella notes of the delicate first song, Night of the Flying Horses, with a text by Sally Potter. The Orchestra created some excellent tension in the faster and more powerful closing section. Bradman has always been a great favourite with Adelaide audiences for the wonderful quality of her voice, her control, and her meaningful interpretations, all of which were displayed so well by these songs. Her upper register, clear and full, came to the fore in the second song, Lúa Descolorida, on a text by Galician poet Rosalía de Castro and with its sparse accompaniment. The final song, How Slow the Wind, with text by Emily Dickinson was filled with poignancy and was a breathtaking conclusion to the first half of the concert.
Following the interval was the new multi-media work, Our Don - A Symphonic Tribute to Sir Donald Bradman, with narration by Gary Sweet, who played Don Bradman in the television series, Bodyline. Adelaide Symphony Orchestra Managing Director, Vincent Ciccarello, and the Hon Jack Snelling, Minister for the Arts, both spoke before the work began. Unlike so many sportspeople today, The Don was a thorough gentleman, as well as a sensational cricketer, and he was a quiet, humble, family man. Modern sportspeople who are often in the news for all the wrong reasons could learn some valuable lessons from Sir Don.
The work is in five sections, dealing chronologically with aspects of Bradman's life and career beginning with his childhood in Bowral in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, with The Boy from Bowral. The music was something of a pastorale, even including the songs of birds heard in that area. A problem quickly became clear. Sound mixing an amplified voice and an acoustic orchestra is a difficult prospect, and the narration was often defeated. Not being a very clear mix on the voice, anyway, did not help causing some words to be missed and demanding the listeners' attentions, over the focus that should have been on the music. The human brain gives priority to the human voice, the spoken word.
The second movement, Bodyline, took us to the 1930s ant the controversial test matches between the English and Australian teams and the eventual banning of bodyline bowling. The music for this section was bold, even martial at times, relating to Bradman's many victorious innings. By this time, though, it was clear that trying to follow the spoken word and, at the same time, read unrelated text projected onto the screen, or observe the photographs and snippets of film, as well as listen fully to the music, resulted in what is termed an information overload.
The third section, His Greatest Partnership, looked at Bradman's private life, specifically his long marriage to the love of his life, Lady Jessie Bradman, and his adoration of his children and grandchildren. The music took a strongly romantic tone for this section.
The fourth part, The Invincibles, took us on to his final 1947-8 tour against England, after which he retired, although he continued to be a selector for Australian teams long after. Again there is a triumphal air to the music, trumpets featuring strongly.
The final section, Our Don, a National Hero, acknowledges his unique place in the history of the sport and everything that he contributed to the game during his lifetime. Reference is made to the music from the song written in 1930 by Jack O'Hagan, Our Don Bradman, within this section, returning at the end to conclude the work. This whole movement has a reverential, even melancholy feel to it.
If something can be done to overcome the technical difficulties with amplified voice, and to reduce the workload placed on the audience, perhaps by incorporating the spoken word into the projections as written text, removing one of information sources entirely and allowing focus to be placed more on the music, it would be worth the effort to do so.
The Orchestra, throughout this concert, was at its best and a credit to their conductor, Luke Dollman. Their vast repertoire and extensive experience in every genre of music makes this Orchestra the ideal choice to premiere a new work. Their playing on the items before the interval was exemplary, and the accompaniment for the three songs was supportive and thoughtful. Natalie Williams could not have asked for better than they gave to Our Don in its world premiere, though, with both highly skilled playing coupled with informed interpretation. Congratulations must go to all concerned.