You know Christmas is approaching when the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra advertises its Noël! Noël! concerts, with Messiah its first concert for 2017. Before that, however, there’s the welcome return of Avi Avital, of whom Director of the ABO, Paul Dyer, says: “He has catapulted the mandolin into a completely different stratosphere.”
With the simple substitution of the word “violin” for “mandolin” the same could be said of recent visiting artist Shunske Sato – although as always, Dyer found the right words for the orchestra’s latest visitor. “Shunske is a brilliant international talent’, said Dyer, “one of the most dynamic and exciting violinists of his generation.”
The core attraction of the recent ABO tour, titled Sato & the Romantics, was the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 4 – daringly played on gut strings. Both in promotional material and in the concert, Dyer asked (rhetorically) “Who does that? It is something only the bravest of the brave would dare to tackle!”
Classic Melbourne was intrigued, and fellow reviewer Heather Leviston joined me to test the claims for this latest wunderkind, who reportedly (ABO publicity again) is “one of the most acclaimed and versatile musicians of his generation”. Sako studied at the Julliard School, New York and the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, and debuted as a soloist at the age of 12.
This was also Mendelssohn’s age when he composed his String Symphony No.3, the opening work on tonight’s program. The first movement, marked Allegro di molto, must have been a challenge for all, but the orchestra kept up with the cracking pace set by Sato. His was a unique style, most noticeable for the number of “slides”, which we found technically well managed but rather intrusive at times. Given the influences on Mendelssohn, this felt more a romantic piece then baroque, but the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra appeared very comfortable with the score. The second movement, Andante, was all mellow Mendelssohn, with the soloists leading by example, in sustained beautiful phrasing. This was a contrast to the final declamatory Allegro, which built a strong framework around the performance, and in which Sato appeared as simply a valued member of the orchestra.
Next was Grieg’s Holberg Suite, its dance-based movements suiting the strings of the Brandenburgs. The well-known prelude to begin suited the players so well that they seemed like a collection of soloists. By contrast, the sarabande had the ABO performing in a rich tutti combination of instruments, with the gavotte quite antiphonal in its style. Sato had more chance in the Aria to hint at his superior skills, but the ABO violins also kept up the pace. Such was Sato’s sensitivity that his exercise of the slides added little to the performance. The cellos were heard to advantage in Romantic music leading inevitably to the gentlest of endings. Finally the Rigaudon was sprightly and allowed the soloist to show more of his technique, with the orchestra not far behind.
The second half featuring the Paganini Violin concerto No.4 in D minor was undoubtedly the drawcard of the evening. Having had a little insight into the soloist’s capabilities, the audience generated a large degree of excitement, as the orchestra added brass, winds and timpani to its resources. Dyer conducted, the violins very high to begin with the rest punctuating the music with strong chords followed by melodic passages.
Sato began by facing into the orchestra, many of whom were playing pizzicato before the development of the melody. Sato again appeared to simply be playing as part of an ensemble. Then there was silence. Finally the soloist made his move with minimal accompaniment. He appeared to be testing the tempo, the orchestra sounding impressively strong when it joined him. A gypsy style theme drew more slides from Sato who was evidently at home with whatever the composer might throw at him. After hearing his performance with fast cadenza and trills the audience broke into spontaneous applause that continued for some time.
The Adagio was for all players to begin, with the trombones begging to be heard before a quite “tearful” melody accompanied by strings with punctuation by the brass. Sato’s violin was lyrical and exciting, heard above the general sound as it reached for yet higher trills. Here the “slide” was de trop, as the melody had enough charm of its own. The last note was, however, a loud shock! There followed a quiet light rondo Galante, as the orchestra picked up Sato’s mood and style. The solo began in earnest, fast arpeggios being added to the mix. The orchestra – with its own “soloists” showing their technique – was across every technical challenge that the soloist sent its way, and despite those challenges the work kept its lyrical qualities. Finally a brass fanfare elicited a gentle response from the soloist. His mood was infectious judging from Dyer and the ABO, with Sato continuing a light approach no matter how the orchestra challenged him.
But there was nothing to mistake the fact that Sato is a brilliant young violinist, whose pyrotechnics were so advanced that they convinced us it was normal to play so well. The stage was set for a brilliant ending of the Concerto – and the concert itself – and that is what we got. Once again the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra confirmed its position in the hearts of Melbourne concertgoers… and it had conspired with Dyer and the soloist to make it all seem so easy. Which it clearly was not!