MCO: Beyond Baroque

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Published: 6th May, 2017

For the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s second concert of their 2017 season works by Georg Philipp Telemann and J S Bach comprised the Baroque element of Beyond Baroque while Johann Sebastian’s sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, took us towards the Classical period and a world of musical imagination even beyond that.

Director of the MCO, William Hennessy, continues to champion young talent and engage top local musicians as featured artists. As the players walked onto the stage it was immediately apparent that, when it comes to string players, young women seem to be making their mark. Anybody with half an eye towards gender equality would have noticed that it is increasingly women who are finding employment in orchestras around the world. In this concert of works for string chamber orchestra Hennessy and principal cello, Michael Dahlenburg, were the only males members of the ensemble.

With all that youthful talent on hand it was little wonder that CPE Bach’s popular Sinfonia in E minor was delivered with such enthusiastic freshness. Precision, crisp attack and careful dynamic shaping had no doubt been honed by a couple of previous performances. Although the Philipp part of his name was in honour of his godfather and father’s great friend, Telemann, this young Bach maintained an important degree of artistic independence and a playful approach to composition that continues to delight. Nicknamed “Fandango” his Sinfonia made a spirited opening to the concert. The Andante that followed the urgent dynamism of the first movement provided a delicate contrast, while the final Allegro with its elaborate trilling flounces, dotted rhythms and rhythmic shifts finished with an unexpectedly decisive flourish.

Christopher Moore is perhaps best known for his significant contribution to the success of the Australian Chamber Orchestra over the past few years. As Principal Viola of the ACO and now of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, he has made such an impact that thoughts of “National Treasure” readily spring to mind. In his hands the viola becomes an object of huge admiration with any ideas of joking ridicule seeming almost blasphemous. For me, this particular MCO concert was pretty well at the top of my “must-hear” list for 2017. There is often a handful of works in a personal vinyl record collection that have been played so often that they need a retread. For me, Telemann’s Viola Concerto is one of them. It was deeply rewarding to hear it played with such warmth and grace on Sunday afternoon. There was not one moment when technique hindered the music; enormous technical facility, devoid of any hint of flabbiness or effort, was always at the service of the composer’s intentions. Depth of tone aside, in certain respects the instrument itself was incidental to musical expressiveness, but Australian violin maker Arthur E Smith could not have wished for a better champion for his prized 1937 viola.

Contrary to conventional practice, Hennessy decided to begin the second half of the concert with the encore: Handel’s Passacaglia, arranged by Halvorsen for violin and viola. The audience was thrilled by Hennessy and Moore’s display of virtuosity, greeting their riveting treatment of the extended set of variations with resounding bravos. Hennessy might still have his doubts about reading a score from an ipad and turning the page with a foot button, but seemed to accommodate the new-fangled technology without undue stress.

As part of his customary genial connection with the audience, Hennessey spoke about the composers and described Bach senior’s Concerto for Viola in E flat major as the central work of the concert. And it was, with the second movement Siciliano being an unquestionable highlight. Played with the greatest refinement, the lyrical, sighing viola line was a thing of transcendent beauty. Moore’s musical conversation with Dahlenburg’s cello in the first movement was also captivating. The fact that Moore embraced the two MCO viola players at the end of the concert was just one aspect of Moore’s musical camaraderie; he consistently showed himself to be a generous artist, aware and supportive of those around him.

In some respects, the most arresting work on the programme was Friedemann Bach’s Symphony in F major F67. Certainly, Telemann’s Overture Les Nations incorporated colourful character, but his godson’s daring came almost as a shock. The nickname “Dissonant” hardly does justice to the sudden shifts in dynamics, rhythm and temperament of this work, especially in the first movement. It is not until the Menuetto of the final, fourth movement that you feel that you are on totally familiar territory. It is akin to being in an asylum of slightly deranged dancers before that. The firstborn son of J. S. and a great organist celebrated for his improvisatory skills, he nevertheless struggled for approval; the MCO’s playing of this work mounted a convincing case for his work to be taken more seriously.

For all the talent and energy of his youthful players, Hennessey’s own vitality was the dominant force in the MCO ensemble. His virtuosity, vast experience at an elite level and his leadership as an educator dedicated to providing musical experiences of the highest calibre for musicians and audiences alike have attracted a large following. This concert displayed ample evidence of why the MCO should continue to prosper.

Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre on April 30, 2017.