Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra: Northern Reflections

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Published: 22nd September, 2017

A recent concert by the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra, Northern Reflections, had particular significance for Classic Melbourne (and this reviewer) for several reasons. One was this website’s commitment to the notion that Melbourne has a number of musical ensembles, including choirs and orchestras that are very worthy of a paying audience, as this orchestra conducted by Christopher Kopke proved to be. Another was the program, dominated by favourite works but bravely introducing a challenging less familiar work, and beginning the concert with it.

The third big attraction was the soloist: Hoang Pham, the pianist, who has been a true friend to Classic Melbourne since performing at its launch more than three years ago. Like a number of other musicians Hoang has both been reviewed by Classic Melbourne reviewers and has taken his seat and notebook to the other side of the instrument to review his peers. (Like a number of other performers in Melbourne the pianist is unwilling however to review his contemporaries, saying ‘he’s a friend I can’t review him!” Just like a hard-working cellist/ reviewer we know: “I can’t review that ensemble, I’ve just finished a concert with them!’’ or the best excuse yet: “ I can’t review that concert… I’m playing in it!”).

But I digress. No such difficulties presented themselves on the night of September 16 when the performers presented themselves at the Ivanhoe Girls Grammar School Performing Arts Centre before a near-capacity audience. On that chilly night the opening work was literally a fiery piece by Alexander Mosolov, a Russian composer of the early Soviet era. The Iron Foundry attempted to represent the mechanical sounds of the foundry, beginning with the start-up, and featuring the French horns with the main theme. (Being seated close to these brass instruments we were able to vouch for their synchronicity and accuracy. As you might expect, the percussion featured heavily – but this was a very successful ensemble piece for the full orchestra which, while not immediately appealing, nevertheless did evoke the sounds and perhaps even the sights of the subject. The latter was aided by the screening of a video of a burning foundry made by John Morton, a member of the orchestra. This was an original idea which added interest, but was not really needed as the orchestra conveyed the message uncompromisingly.

The piece was perhaps saved from cacophony by the conducting style of Christopher Kopke, a local musician with an impressive CV. Throughout the concert he appeared both contained and in control, and also very in touch with the music being played by the orchestra. As most of it was romantic or post-romantic this was no small feat as the temptation can be to react to passionate music in like manner (for example with hand waving!), as lesser conductors are wont to do.

The first item was admittedly an unusual piece, but the final item, Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.2  (“The London Symphony”) is another matter entirely. This well-known work suggests the many moods of London, with all the variety you would expect from such a complex undertaking. From the opening movement with bass and cello leading the way, Kopke kept a sober tempo to begin, but was open to the many contrasts that came later. In the second movement (Lento) the French horns appeared as much gentler instruments than in the first work, but the winds and strings also deserve praise for their understanding of the complexity of this symphony, and their willingness to follow Kopke’s direction.

For two of the scheduled items this was the orchestra’s night, and there was another major work before interval for the players to demonstrate their prowess: the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no.2, with soloist Hoang Pham. Here the challenge is to match and support the pianist in an exciting score without being the dominant sound at any point. From the outset the pianist is faced with his own enormous challenge: to temper the technical brilliance he must demonstrate with a lyricism that is often gentle, and the musicality to combine the two seamlessly.

Many Melbourne audiences know Hoang to be a sensitive and intelligent exponent of Chopin, but those characteristics evidently carry over into the performance of Rachmaninov, whose works are no less Romantic than those of his Polish contemporary.

From an audience point of view the Rach 2 is perhaps more like a rollercoaster ride than any other comparable concerto. At the beginning, this is not entirely evident. Hoang began his performance with a slow crescendo on a few gentle chords, followed by the first of many fast-flowing piano passages. The second movement appears to turn the interest to the lovely strings, with many interludes that have pleased film directors over the years! But by the movement’s end, the focus is strongly on the piano, albeit with the support of the strings, brass and winds.

The third movement of the Rachmaninov saw a simply brilliant performance by the pianist, with an empathetic orchestra for support. Again, the conductor is to be commended for keeping things in check without denying anyone the thrills that the pianist was more than ready to deliver. There is a tiny pause in the third movement, which leads to the exciting finale, but not before a fast-moving build-up of sound from both soloist and orchestra. Add the conductor to this equation and the big finish we heard was assuredly as intended by the composer – and the audience shouted its approval.

Hoang Pham is no stranger to the well-chosen encore, and delivered the Chopin Fantasie Impromptu with assurance. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear the pianist playing solo and to watch his hands racing across the keys at an almost impossible speed while he mastered the changing dynamics of the work, apparently without effort. As for the Heidelberg Symphony Orchestra their “encore” (already reviewed) was the Symphony they played so beautifully after interval.

Classic Melbourne’s faith in the quality of local musicians was yet again vindicated!

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Editor’s note: The video clip in this article is indeed Hoang Pham playing Chopin, but not on this occasion. It was recorded live in concert at City Recital Hall on 16 October 2016.