It was barely a week since Melbourne audiences had been lured from their cosy homes to the different but still attractive warmth of the Melbourne Recital Centre, again to hear an orchestra that had travelled from Sydney. There the similarities stopped. The very name of the newcomers proclaimed their major point of difference from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (ARCO) extended the scope of the repertoire through two more major periods (although rather oddly, presented in reverse order!).
Relatively new, established in 2013, the orchestra may be based in Sydney but has all the marks of a national ensemble and every chance of being accepted as such, as the Brandenburgs are, and with equally as many Melbourne as Sydney players in their ranks. Gravitas is lent by the involvement of Richard Gill, a loved figure in Victoria with a national and international profile, and a strong influence on music-making in this State for many years. However, illness prevented Gill from conducting on the night. Guest conductor was Jakob Lehmann, who as first violin evidently has a strong bond with ARCO and the ability to draw the best from it – with warm accompaniment for mezzo-soprano Fiona Campbell, who presented arias from these two Rossini operas as well as his Cinderella. In fact, Rossini dominated the first half of the Melbourne concert, as a composer who can always be relied on for a dramatic and interesting overture, and tuneful arias besides.
In this case there were two overtures: the first from the Barber of Seville, the second, The Italian Girl in Algiers. The Barber of Seville overture illustrated the fluidity of the strings with the Presto a (well-met) challenge to the verve of the orchestra. Campbell’s aria Una voce poco fa, sung in a strong and lovely voice, proved that she was a good match for the ensemble and had the personality to deliver the Rossini with some cheek as well as charm. The Italian Girl aria, Cruda Sorte, demonstrated the range of her voice and depth of emotion, an impression, which intensified with the Cinderella aria, delivered just before interval. The famous top notes were heard in all their glory, although at times the orchestra seemed it might overwhelm the singer. However the pizzicato was delicate and the conductor kept a lovely balance between singer and accompaniment.
After interval, it was all about the orchestra – and the music of Schubert. Starting with the Overture in C minor, the orchestra (or at least, the strings) achieved an admirable cohesion. The conductor kept things moving apace, never quite at the expense of phrasing. The work was a clever choice, being strong and deeply thoughtful, in contrast to Rossini’s more dramatic style of overture. This was further illustrated in the final work, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony no.8, which saw the full orchestra return for a triumphant end to the concert.
Both of the movements that comprise the work were excellent showpieces for the musicians: the first, with its many ideas and opportunities for harmonious sound, with high drama at some point. The brass (interestingly, with a stronger female component than is the norm) had its best showing of the night, although the work was a vehicle for each section of the orchestra. Again, Lehmann showed his suitability to guide his colleagues through this major work. In the second movement, a gentle beginning in a major key was developed strongly with the maestro drawing out its nuances. The winds introduced a loud passage that again showed ARCO’s strengths, before things ended quietly.
This had been a subtle yet immensely satisfying performance by the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra. It remains to be seen, in a city of orchestras as Melbourne is, whether ARCO will emulate the ABO and find a place in this city’s heart. On this night Ms Campbell added an incentive to fall in love with ARCO, but I think the orchestra has every chance of following the lead of others (including the Australian Chamber Orchestra) to always be welcome for their loved repertoire, and commitment to excellence. (Especially if, even as a national orchestra, they retain that appealing, slightly raffish and distinctly Sydney style of performance!).