Canberra Symphony Orchestra: Debussy, Jolivet, and Tchaikovsky

A late change to the CSO’s programme for its last concert of the year introduced Jean-Louis Forestier, conducting the CSO for the first time, and Jolivet’s difficult Concerto for Harp and Chamber Orchestra. Debussy’s Prelude “L’Après-midi d’un Faune” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6, the Pathétiqueremained unchanged.

Hearing the CSO perform is a little like a lucky-dip. The orchestra’s constantly-changing line-up means the sound is always slightly different, and, as in this performance, the difference between pieces the orchestra knows and those they don’t is always clear.

There were moments of beautiful sound and control in the Debussy, right from the flute solo at the opening. The warm, assured glow of the large double-bass section underpinned an orchestra that very nearly captured the mood of the piece, although the upper strings struggled to achieve the impressionist wash of sound called for at the opening and the close.

Two shortcomings in the Debussy—which surfaced again in the Jolivet and the Tchaikovsky—seem symptomatic of an orchestra with not enough time together in rehearsal to become truly confident. The oboe solos in the Prelude were lost underneath an enthusiastic but overly loud string section, and the whole orchestra seemed reluctant to follow the fluid tempi called for by Forestier.

The chamber orchestra on stage for the Jolivet concerto did a much better job of supporting Alice Giles’ stellar performance of this tricky concerto. Balancing a single harp against even a small-ish orchestra is a challenge, especially in a barn like the Llewellyn Hall. A little more sensitivity from the orchestra could have minimised the number of times we saw Giles’ hands moving furiously over the strings but heard nothing.

Alice Giles played throughout with poise and sensitivity. Her cadenzas, especially in the slower middle movement, captured the beauty of the instrument in a way that was harder to achieve with the orchestra, despite Forestier’s energetic shushing from the podium. The ensemble began the third movement, with its intricate, angular rhythms, clearly, but couldn’t sustain the crisp execution right through.

The majority of the evening was given over to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, and it was here that we heard both the best and the worst of the orchestra’s playing. If there’s one thing Tchaikovsky could do, it’s the soaring theme for strings. When played well, these are elegant and fluid, like a high bridge over a wide river; the CSO’s strings made them into more of an aquaduct, with heavy pillars all along the way.

But they settled beautifully into the odd lilt of the second movement (especially in the reprise of the opening), and, as they erupted into the third movement, it was clear that they had, finally and after much searching, found their groove.

Like an enthusiastic school orchestra, they seem at their best when playing fast and loud, and the energy they found here carried them through the much more difficult final movement.

It was a shame we didn’t get more of a sense of what Forestier wanted to achieve throughout this programme. Judging by his entreaties from the podium (for less sound, or more, or a faster or slower tempo), the orchestra had their own ideas and played, for much of the concert, with their heads buried in their music. With more rehearsal, and with a more professional relationship with visiting conductors, who knows what they could have made of it?