The Lawchestra, about which I have troubled you before, is playing again this Sunday after we totally nailed the last concert (photos from the brilliant young photographer and law student Sean R. Ali here). It was thanks to the good work of Robert Dora, the conductor. Man does he have a hard job. Orchestras like the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra run themselves and the conductors just add an air of distinguished flamboyance. But conducting a community orchestra, the conductor really has to work hard to cue people, explain to them without speaking or stopping wagging the baton that they came in a bar early, as well as drag some dynamic contrast out of players more worried about playing the right notes than where to diminuendo. It’s a high-risk, high-stress job, and Dora the Conductor is great. So is the gorgeous soloist, Natasha Lin. You should definitely come: book here. Even The Age says so.
The programme is certainly ambitious. The bloke who wrote ‘Carmen’ was a Parisian named Georges Bizet, and he had a knack for coming up with excellent melodies. One of them is the fourth movement of ‘Jeux d’Enfants’, an orchestration of the piano duet he composed in 1871, and is often found marooned by itself on dreadful CDs such as ‘100 Classical Tracks for Long Car Journeys’. We’re playing all five tiny movements, totalling only about 12 minutes. Old Georges achieved little recognition during his lifetime, dying of a heart attack in 1875, three months after the premiere of ‘Carmen’, convinced that it had been a failure. I can tell you that the fifth movement which is marked ‘Presto’ but goes ‘con furia’ at the end is a cruel bit of writing for the first flute.
But what’s really ambitious is our tackling of Rachmaninoff’s second, lush, wildly romantic, piano concerto, written in 1900. It’s one of the most famous pieces of music of all time, and deservedly so. Not to like Rach II is to be a peculiar, an iconoclast, an outlier. You know, turns up as a Sinatra song, is the subject of the protagonist’s Marilyn Monroe fantasy — he plays the concerto, she is overcome, he gets in her pants — in The 7 Year Itch (the film in which Ms Monroe’s dress is blown up by the wind when she stands on a subway grate), that kind of thing. Rachmaninoff’s attitude to second flautists is that they should play very little, and only ever after about 35 bars’ rest during which there must be at least three changes of time signature, melodies which soloists cannot resist imposing insane rubato on, all within the context of continual changes of tempo. It makes the simple act of counting bars an art form. But that affects only the enjoyment of the sole second flautist and is very unlikely to wreck the experience for the crowd.
Now the Lawchestra supports the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, devoted to the mental health of lawyers, so it is interesting that Rachmaninoff had been dreadfully depressed for several years and suffering a writers’ block, cured only by hypnotherapy, until he sat down and wrote what is affectionately known in the game as ‘Rach II’ (yet another example of great art produced by mental illness). By God, what an uncorking! You can hear the giant-handed Rachmaninoff playing the concerto, which he dedicated to his doctor, here.
Then we are playing Johannes Brahms’s ‘Academic Festival Overture’, written in 1880. A German university awarded him an honorary doctorate. He wrote a letter saying thanks a lot. But then came the sting: he was asked to ‘Compose a fine symphony’ for the grand occasion of the bestowing of the doctorate. Some guidance was given: ‘But well orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!’ He composed something which was only half serious: the grand finale quotes the graduation hymn Gaudeamus Ignitur and student drinking songs are drawn on and given a somewhat bombastic treatment. Frankly, I think the whole thing was a big joke to Brahms, but it seems these days to be treated with great reverence.
Finally, we are playing another Frenchman’s ‘Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte’, generally translated as ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’. The composer is Maurice Ravel, the man behind ‘Bolero’ (the French were really into the Spanish back then), said to have been the unsuccessful applicant for a job as Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium in 1906, perhaps because of an insufficient command of Australian folk song. This is another deservedly famous bit of lush early 20th century music (it was composed in 1899 for piano and orchestrated in 1910) and it would be very hard to dislike. Programme music is a rubbish concept, so I was so pleased when I read that when asked why he called the piece what he did, Ravel said it had nothing to do with the music, and it just sounded kinda cool. He was just a student when he composed it, in Gabriel Faure’s composition class.