Melbourne Chamber Orchestra can be guaranteed to create a music experience worth braving the winter cold to enjoy. With a program of works by Bach, including his Violin Concerto in D minor, played by young rising star Anne-Marie Johnson and a newish composition by Calvin Bowman written expressly for Sara Macliver (pictured), this concert was bound to offer something special.
After a long pause while the audience settled into focused attention, soothing lower strings opened the concert with Mein Jesu, was vor Seelenweh in an arrangement for string orchestra by Stokowski. Perhaps sounding more Barber than Bach, six instruments demonstrated just how lush a tone can be generated by accomplished musicians and an ideal acoustic in this measured, emotionally charged arrangement.
Director William Hennessy relinquished his violin to complete the viola trio for Bach’s popular Brandenburg Concerto No 3 and give his viola its first public airing in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Flanking the three cellos, Shane Chen led the violin trio and performed the Siciliano from Bach’s Violin Sonata in C minor as the second movement instead of following the more usual practice of a harpsichord or violin embellishing or improvising on the solitary two chords that Bach actually wrote. Opinions may differ as to the appropriateness of MCO’s choice, but this was a persuasive account of this very beautiful movement by the performers, Chen and accompanying cello and chamber organ. The Siciliano also provided a suitable contrast with the following Allegro, which is often played at the kind of breakneck speed that favours showy virtuosity in defiance of clean articulation and Bach’s emphasis on the numerology of the Trinity. This performance fell somewhere between the two, but favoured the speedier option.
Before playing The Art of Fugue: Contrapunctus V, Hennessy spoke about the lack of instructions left by Bach as to how it should be played and how interpretation rests with the imagination of the players. The choice of moderate speed and clearly voiced lines appeared to serve the music well. Hennessy also described Calvin Bowman’ s deep connection with Bach, reflected in his performances of Bach’s complete organ works, just for a start.
Another of Bowman’s passions is art song. Amongst a number of works he has written for soprano, Die Linien des Lebens (The Lines of Life) is a cycle of seven songs set to the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, a German Romantic poet. Hölderlin’s love of nature is at the core of these selected poems and Bowman has drawn on the accents of English pastoral music to express its sentiments. With the exception of the second, largely unaccompanied atonal song, Sybille, Bowman’s music is melodious and engaging, if melancholy. He has employed Macliver’s singular attributes to striking effect. Her fresh, pure tone, so well suited to the Baroque repertoire in which she excels, emphasised the heartfelt simplicity of the poetry and the music. Her extraordinary resonance had the power to give the hall almost cathedral-like properties as long phrases hung suspended in the air: a phenomenon that was very much in keeping with the religious nature of the poems. Bowman uses a range of effective instrumentation from full string sound to sparse, plucked strings that indicate fragments of poems. The title of the cycle comes from the last of the seven poems and is dedicated to Ernst Zimmer, who for decades cared for Hölderlin after his tragic descent into madness.
Sara Macliver opened the second half on a more cheerful note with the Laudamus te from Bach’s Mass in B minor This was followed by an aria from Cantata BWV 115 featuring extended instrumental passages and some lovely interplay between the voice, Hennessy’s violin and continuo instruments. Violin and two violas were graceful accompaniments to her aria from Cantata BWV197: Vergnügen und Lust. Two more of Macliver’s hallmark vocal characteristics – agility and ease of production – illuminated these pieces.
Stepping away from the music stand and her role of tutti violinist, Anne-Marie Johnson took centre stage for a confident performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto in D minor. Her warm, substantial tone and impressive virtuosity received an enthusiastic reception from a large audience.
It was also a happy audience that ventured into the dying light of the wintry afternoon.