Review: Ode to Joy (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

Umberto Clerici conducts Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Brisbane Chamber Choir in Beethoven’s ninth symphony, photographed by Sarah Marshall

Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s first Maestro concert of the year, and their first with Umberto Clerici formally appointed as Chief Conductor, Ode to Joy had three performances at the QPAC Concert Hall. Featuring a program of Beethoven and Sculthorpe alongside an orchestral premiere from William Barton and Véronique Serret, Ode to Joy included the talents of Brisbane Chamber Choir and other guest vocalists alongside the orchestra.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra hosted Kuku-Yalanji artist and musician Jeremy Donovan for a week-long residency in their South Bank studio late last year, culminating in an artwork titled Who We Are, which captures Donovan’s impression of “the essence of the Orchestra, its people and [QSO’s] place in beautiful Meanjin/Brisbane.” You may have noticed this striking painting in the background of the Joy and Sorrow concert photos, and sections of the artwork were printed on ties and scarves worn by the orchestra for Ode to Joy.

Co-concertmaster Warwick Adeney performed his final QSO concert with Ode to Joy. Photographed by Sarah Marshall

Ode to Joy also marked the final QSO performance of co-Concertmaster Warwick Adeney, whose career with the orchestra spans 38 years, with 22 of those years as Concertmaster.

Umberto Clerici was announced as Chief Conductor in mid-2022, and officially commenced the position for a three-year term in January this year. Born in Turin, Maestro Clerici comes to the role from a 20-year career as a cello soloist, and chamber and orchestral musician, having made his conducting debut in 2018 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Clerici conducted Ode to Joy with warmth and feeling, drawing out the notes to their fullest extent and on into silence.

Véronique Serret, William Barton, and Umberto Clerici following the orchestral premiere of Kalkani. Photographed by Sarah Marshall.

Didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton and violinist Véronique Serret also joined the Queensland Symphony Orchestra for the world premiere of their 15-minute orchestral version of Kalkani, which began as a duet for their musical project Heartland and has now been orchestrated by Robert Davidson for QSO. Originally a 2020 commission by the ABC Fresh Start Initiative, Kalkani translates as ‘eagle’ in the Kalkadoon language and evoked an eagle soaring over the landscape; Associate Concertmaster Alan Smith described Kalkani as “fascinating and mesmerising”. Serret stood in a spotlight before the organ, moving down to centre stage as the piece progressed. Also lit by spotlights, and playing from various positions in the audience space, were the clarinet, flute, and violin, with the double bass and cello in opposite corners of the choir loft.

Serret’s vocals opened the piece slowly, like a sunrise, building to a crescendo before receding, calling to mind whistling wind and the hum of the earth. Both Barton and Serret vocalised and sang throughout, and Kalkani’s orchestral premiere was thrilling and intense.

Co-concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto performs in the audience space during Kalkani, photographed by Sarah Marshall

Peter Sculthorpe’s distinctly Australian Earth Cry was composed in 1986 and revised in 1999 to add the didgeridoo specifically for William Barton, who performed the piece with QSO for the Ode to Joy concerts. Barton began in the central aisle of the audience and continued to play as he moved to the stage. There was no rest for the audience throughout the piece, only shifts. It was easy to become immersed in the imagery and I found the music moving; racing strings and muted percussion added to the sense of despair, with woodwinds sounding like an alarm and the call and cackle of the didgeridoo.

Following the interval, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s ninth symphony (Choral), joined by Soprano Eleanor Lyons, mezzo soprano Deborah Humble, tenor Andrew Goodwin, baritone Michael Honeyman and the Brisbane Chamber Choir for the well-known final movement Ode to Joy. This was the final completed symphony of Beethoven’s life, and is considered by many to be his greatest work, as well as being one of the best-known and most performed works in the classical canon. In his program note, Maestro Clerici referred to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as “a hymn to the humanist utopia of the equality of all humankind.”  

Umberto Clerici conducts Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Brisbane Chamber Choir in Beethoven’s ninth symphony, photographed by Sarah Marshall

Thunderous, dramatic, and grand, the first two movements of the symphony contrasted against the sweeter, gentler third movement, which raised thoughts of springtime. The fourth and final (and famous) movement, Presto – Allegro assai – Allegro assai vivace then brought the crashing waves of music and voice together, overlapping and finding unison towards a triumphant and passionate finish.

Ode to Joy was certainly one of the more dramatic Maestro concerts I have attended, and the movement of musicians into the audience space was exciting and novel. Bringing together a staple of the classical canon with both distinguished and new Australian compositions, Queensland Symphony Orchestra set the tone for a year of ambitious and varied musical experiences.

Ode to Joy was performed at the QPAC Concert Hall from 17 – 19 February 2023.

Click here for more information about Queensland Symphony Orchestra, including their upcoming concerts

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