MSO presents ‘American Panorama’ @ Hamer Hall, Saturday November 1

In case you’re playing bingo with things that get reviewed in Cool Perth Nights, it’s time to cross off “Melbourne-based symphony orchestra,” and while, granted, it’s not a Perth night at all, it is a night, I think it’s fair to start by ditching the only thing less Cool than being exclusively interested in orchestral music: being indiscriminately dismissive of orchestral music. No, it’s not a world often covered by street press or online indie media and yes, it’s a world that often pushes the “museum piece” style model of music performance, where the format, aesthetic and approaches to playing ever-aging pieces of music rarely change. But it’s also a world that embraces new compositions, new collaborations and ideas and – importantly – pieces of musical history that are neither canonical juggernauts nor fresh and contemporary; pieces that “fell through the cracks” of the cultural consciousness. It’s also a world that’s at pains to shake off the stereotype of the orchestra as ossified, conservative, humourless and withering. And why not entertain the notion that the orchestra remains as relevant as ever?

First things first, let’s go to a concert. It’s Saturday afternoon. I trim my beard to a meek shadow, iron a white linen shirt, slip on a light black coat. Once upon a time I would have preferred to flout the unofficial concert hall dress code, but I think now I’m more interested in Doing It Properly, the whole ritual, whatever it is, getting the total Value Meal Deal, so I put on my young corporate sophisticate post-Halloween costume and spray on a little cologne and hop on the tram to Southbank.

Hamer Hall lies just over the river from Flinders’ Street station, just before the National Gallery of Victoria and the myriad cultural moons that orbit it. Walking in, it’s conspicuously clean and modernistically luxurious, with gold mood lighting bouncing off angular archiecture and geometric hanging sculptures. “The concert will being in just a few minutes” booms a serene, disembodied voice, accompanied by a dinging bell. I scurry in and sink into a comfortable red seat.

The concert’s called “American Panorama” – a two-hour show designed to “chart the development of the American ‘voice’ in orchestral music.’ That’s no mean feat, but tonight’s conductor and program mastermind, Keith Lockhart from Poughkeepsie, New York, is pretty well placed to take on the challenge. He’s conducted the hugely influential Boston Pops for 20 years, and has lead just about every major orchestra in North America as some point. He’s the kind of guy you want guiding a show like this. He scurries on stage, bobs down into a cute sort of bow-squat, and launches the orchestra pretty quickly into Leonard Bernstein’s Candide: Overture. The movement, which debuted in 1956, is a brief (four minute) romp evoking the titular character’s carefree naivety at the outset of Voltaire’s classic novella.

Following on from the decidedly unabrasive frivolity of Bernstein’s opener come George Gershwin’s Three Preludes, originally written for solo piano, but adapted by Don Sebesky for orchestra. There’s a little more mystery and jazzy complexity to these three short explorations, reaching maximum spookiness with middle movement “Andante con moto e poco rubato.” It’s a distinctive and fitting inclusion, a lushly arranged tribute to one of America’s greatest, most hardworking, and sadly gone-too-soon composers.

Aaron Copland’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes take up the lion’s share of the concert’s first half. These theme and elaborations seem to be particularly suffused with a unique American-ness; with the yawning, grandiose brass chorales, the clattering percussion, the robust melodies and the darting, flittering strings and wind, it’d be impossible not to see visions of the Wild West, even without the title or concert notes to lead you along. While the hyper-saturated emotion of the major/minor strains and the modal jocularity of the upbeat sections don’t do too much for me personally, it’s impossible to ignore how perfectly realized, how evocative, and how influential this kind of composition was, and the orchestra recreates it superbly.

The first half rounds out with renowned film composer John Williams’ “Far And Away: Suite,” from the titular Ron Howard movie starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in an Australian/American actors’ romance that – as Keith Lockhard winkingly mentions – mirrors that of he and the Melbourne Symphony. The piece is a perfectly reasonable inclusion, a worthwhile nod to Williams who is a master arranger, and a means of highlighting the Celtic influence on American music – it revolves around Irish tin-whistle and violin melodies, bolstered by orchestral majesty. Ultimately, though, it’s pretty forgettable pseudo-Celtic fluff, the sort of thing you wouldn’t really be compelled to hang around for as you shuffle out the popcorn-littered aisles while the credits roll – a less predictable inclusion than, say Star Wars, but similarly, less famed for a reason.

Intermission arrives and we trickle out of the vast, domed concert hall into the gold-lit foyer again. People chatter and swirl and hydrate themselves and relieve themselves, almost all of them clad in black and white, like me, perhaps with some special adornments they mightn’t normally slap on, and I speed-sip a caffeinated beverage to reinvigorate myself for Part 2.

The second half is shorter than its counterpart, but that’s not to say it’s any kind of anticlimax, dénouement, or afterthought. Really, it’s the most crucial part of the night’s program, in that it wholly reimagines heritage influences and hurls them into the present, and maybe the future.

The post-intermission ribbon is cut by Dave Brubeck’s famous Blue Rondo a la Turk, the jazz quartet classic reinterpreted for orchestra by his son, the eclectic Chris Brubeck. While the large-scale reworking softens the edges and blurs out the cool minimalism of the original, it also takes on a new sprawling, mystic quality.

And finally we reach the nights biggest crossover coup: a kitchen-sink-genre virtuoso trio of two violins and double bass, called Time For Three, join the orchestra up front, and perform a tailor-made composition by Brubeck the Younger called Travels In Time For Three. The idea is that the trio’s musical offerings were so varied they could be considered “time travellers” of sorts, and Brubeck wrote a piece to showcase this idea; it oscillates between jazzy and baroque, Cajun grooves pushing up against swing breakdowns and rollicking folksy tumultuousness. Time For Three are unapologetically over-the-top, jumping around the stage-front, resplendent with hair gel and amplified tones, and the orchestra has its fair share of endearingly dorky moments – from percussive high-fives to finger clicks to a collective hushed “yeah!” that would befit a high-school pantomime. But so what? This is good clean family fun, and the more daggy moments sit snugly within a flurry of incredible playing, surging dynamics, spirited conducting, and a real sense of communal energy. What’s more, while it might not be avant-garde in common usage of the word, this is still forward-thinking on its own terms: fusing a sort of pseudo-pop instrumental trio with a orchestra playing a sort of pseudo-symphony that’s actually informed by countless grassroots genres. What’s more, they’ve done it all in a holistic way whereby the composer has written the piece in tandem with the players, and the conductor has been along for the ride long before the score reached his music stand. It’s a more integrated, less compartmentalized way of approaching orchestra collaboration, a far cry from “here’s a pop musician or soloist – now let’s bung some big orchestra chords behind them.” Indeed, the orchestra become part of the pop-inspired spectacle; their high-fives, for example, might seem silly, but they create a performative link to the light-hearted frivolity of the trio up front and centre. It’s a means of breaking down the stale old expressive superstar versus focused, precise, robot-like orchestra dichotomy. It’s refereshing. Perhaps the only disappointment is the trio’s decision to segue into Mumford and Son’s “Little Lion Man” at the very end. It’s cheesy, unnecessary, and a heavy-handed postscript saying “YES! We’re open to pop music,” despite that influence being a palpable, tasteful, and well-integrated undercurrent throughout the night. Then they do a version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” without the orchestra, which is actually a really nice rendition, but that makes two English folk-pop tunes in a row, and it completely farts on the conceptual unity of the evening. Oh well. The crowd seem mostly into it – and that’s sort of the pop musician’s mandate, innit.

Despite my few misgivings, I leave the show feeling genuinely inspired. No, at least based on tonight’s performance, orchestras like the Melbourne Symphony aren’t pushing the envelope in ways that will blow your mind or make you Rethink Everything You Thought You Knew About Music. That’s not their objective. The “museum” function remains important, and I don’t use the word in a derogative sense: we need to hear these older historic pieces, both the hugely famous and the lesser-know, anew, live, and by people who have practiced their whole lives to be able to perform them with the requisite breathtaking skill. But beyond that, tonight’s demonstrated a program whereby an orchestra can seem to have its cake and eat it too; to please the conservatives and progressives alike, to faithfully reproduce the canonical, and at various twists and turns, throw spanners in the works, or explore new avenues entirely. Creative innovation is a proud tradition in America and Australia alike; tonight’s been a solid example of successfully honouring the past in a traditionalist forum, while using its pioneering figures as beacons for the future.