Review: The MacMillan Saxophone Concerto with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Nick Carter – The Australian 20/08/2018

Words by Graham Strahle

Nicholas Carter and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra have turned into a formidable combination in their short time together. In 2016, the ASO took a bet on Carter, then aged 30, by elevating him to principal conductor — unprecedently young at the time in the orchestra’s history. The decision has paid off in consistently strong, well-formed performances. But now the team is hitting its stride. Carter and the ASO have an air of easy confidence about them, and they have moved to an altogether more impressive level. It is not only in Germanic repertoire either, which is Carter’s heartland. Brett Dean’s Hamlet earlier this year proved just how brilliant Carter is in contemporary works, and this concert unveiling James MacMillan’s new Saxophone Concerto with soloist Amy Dickson underlined that verdict. First, though, came a welcome excursion into French music by way of Faure’s Pelleas et Melisande orchestral suite. Here, Carter drew out its tender phrases with flowing grace, allowing the music to billow out with lush, perfumed expression when needed. Geoffrey Collins’s gorgeously full-toned flute playing in the Sicilienne was a joy.
This was only the second time MacMillan’s concerto has been performed, after Perth, Scotland, in April; and it was indeed impressive that the ASO co-commissioned this work from such a widely admired British composer. It is a compact little concerto, hauntingly beautiful and full of Celtic soul. In a traditional three-movement format, MacMillan does wonderful things with the soprano saxophone, deriving elements from Scottish folk music and the unique Gaelic tradition of psalm singing, still practised to this day, in which the cantor leads the congregation in alternating short melodic phrases. He transforms these sounds so that they are familiar yet new. Accompanied by just 20 strings, the solo sax emerges as an eloquent, confiding voice that brings a whole new dimension to the instrument. Dickson was its perfect exponent in a remarkably wide tonal palette from the tiniest whisper to full-throated cries. Carter’s precision, in the pizzicato rhythms in the playful dancelike outer movements and the sinuous, entwining bowed textures of the heartfelt middle movement, was immaculate. His conducting in Rachmaininov’s Symphony No 3 was inspirational, showing deep insight into this work’s language, from its dramatic opening spark to life to its brooding melody and periodic descents into melancholy. Under his potent and remarkably clear direction, the ASO felt twice the orchestra. There was an abundance to enjoy and admire in this concert.