A Perfect Afternoon at the Proms

A Perfect Afternoon at the Proms
Barrier Reef Orchestra, Queen’s Gardens, Townsville. Conducted by Andrew Ryder. 30 July 2023.

IT HAS BEEN said that music is a language of emotion that can barge into the soul with no boundaries or limitations.

Well, that is precisely the effect that it had not only on me but on many members of the audience who were immensely moved at the performance of the Barrier Reef Orchestra which performed the single most magnificent version of The Seekers’ I Am Australian – to my mind Australia’s unofficial national anthem.

Politics may attempt to unite, but history continues to prove that it is music which is probably one of the most powerful of all unifying forces, and this performance proved it. With the backing of a full orchestra, set against the background of Townsville’s lush tropical heritage-listed Queen’s Gardens, and coming at the end of a perfectly pitched program, guest performer IRAR singer, Liz Cherry, inspired with a soaring finale that had many – including me – in tears.

It was undoubtedly a perfect end to what I can only describe as probably the most outstanding outdoor orchestral performance I have ever attended. With Townsville musician Andrew Ryder not only producing the program but also picking up the conductor’s baton, this was Townsville’s version of An Afternoon at the Proms, performed as part of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM). I doubt whether it could have been more perfectly designed – the standard and variety of performance, the setting, the weather (a mild tropical afternoon), the subtle amplification, and the program content of light classical and popular music.

We travelled the world with conductor Ryder as he conveyed us around the world with a balanced program of light classics which embraced different places and many moods – all of which celebrated what is good in life. It also notably international with guest musicians and featured artists not only from other parts of Australia, but also from Ukraine (including Theodore Kuchar, newly appointed Artistic Director of the Barrier Reef Orchestra and founding artistic director of AFCM), and a number of visiting American musicians here for the Talisman Sabre exercise.

The concert began with the impressive brass fanfare from French composer Paul Dukas’ 1912 ballet La Peri, and continued with Maurice Jarre’s evocative Oscar-winning overture from the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia.

An obligatory inclusion in every traditional Proms concert is Edward Elgar’s ever-popular Pomp and Circumstance No I in D Major, composed in 1901 with its evocative and hummable Land of Hope and Glory which was set to lyrics in 1902 at the suggestion of King Edward VII, who told the composer it would make a great song.

Written in 1965, the charming Variations on a Korean Folksong by John Barnes Chance is based on a Korean folksong Arirang that he heard while serving in the Army in South Korea in the 1950s. The piece certainly gave full flair to the brass, woodwind and percussion sections, while it was violin soloist – and current AFCM artistic director - Jack Liebeck who charmed the audience with the lyrical beauty of with French composer Jules Massenet’s Meditation, the symphonic intermezzo from the 1804 opera, Thais.

Two AFCM guests - trumpeter David Elton and soprano Rachelle Durkin also performed with the orchestra. Principal trumpet with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Elton gave an impeccable contribution to two movements from Josef Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E Flat, while Durkin gave a lyrical interpretation of the most beloved Judy Garland classic, Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz.

I have often believed that today the cinema soundtrack is the “new” classical music. After all, it is one of few genres that can afford to employ full symphony orchestras. Contemporary orchestras often feature symphonic versions of film soundtracks to not only expand the orchestra’s repertoire, but also appeal to a broader audience. Probably nowhere in cinema are full symphony orchestras given fuller reign than in the works of John Williams, who with a total of 53 holds the record for the most number of Oscar nominations in history. We heard familiar themes from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.

The militaristic martial rhythms of Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem Pines of Rome: The Pines of the Appian Way was the last classical piece featured in the program. Used in the Disney film Fantasia 2000 (1999), many will remember that this was the music used in the segment where a family of humpback whales are able to fly.

Performing two arrangements that were specifically scored for the Barrier Reef Orchestra, and fittingly saving the climax for last, the orchestra was joined by Liz Cherry for a rendition of My Island Home, followed by the magnificent version of I Am Australian

Beneath the canopies of the enormous tropical trees, perched on picnic blankets or on outdoor chairs, the audience expressed their appreciation of the orchestra with a well-deserved standing ovation. A perfect highlight on the AFCM program.

Bravo omnes!

Trevor Keeling

Photographer: Andrew Rankin

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