Benedetti a blessing for the MSO

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Published: 17th September, 2014

Reviewer Suzanne Yanko reports on a recent MSO concert featuring the Beethoven Violin Concerto and questions why its stellar soloist was not promoted more energetically before the three performances.

Reviews of this concert are already out and two major newspapers were most moved by the rendition of the Beethoven Violin Concerto by visiting soloist Nicola Benedetti – a Scot, despite her Italian name. Their reviewers saw her contribution as making the Concerto the outstanding part of the concert.

This is interesting, as Benedetti was not featured prominently in the lead-up to the concert, the title of which was Beethoven & Tchaikovsky, or Diego Matheuz Conducts Beethoven & Tchaikovsky. Yet, in a classical world clamouring for audience share, Benedetti must surely have been a drawcard. To quote the MSO’s own limited media release, “Benedetti, who recently performed at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Glasgow, is one of the most sought after violinists of her generation and is the first ever Scottish classical artist to enter the Top 20 of the Official UK Albums Chart.”

Like conductor Diego Matheuz, the violinist also happens to be young and attractive. But where much is made of Matheuz’s involvement with Il Sistema, the inspiring program that brings music to children at all levels of society, it was left to The Age’s Barney Zwartz (11/9/14) to report that “Benedetti is the official ‘big sister’ of the Scotland Sistema, and devotes a lot of time and energy to various children’s projects, from workshops for 200 budding violinists to lobbying the government, from supporting campaigns to preserve music education funding to lecturing on the importance of creativity in schools.”

Further, “While in Melbourne, Benedetti will get involved with the MSO’s own Sistema project, the Pizzicato Effect, with Meadows Primary School in Broadmeadows,” Zwartz said. This is the stuff of appeal for audiences and worthily concentrates on the artist’s achievements in a wider context than their own prowess or their looks.

It was revealed in a British newspaper that Benedetti currently plays a “million-pound violin” (the Gariel, a 1717 Stradivarius loaned to her by the banker Jonathan Moulds). But of course the question is: did she make the most of it in her Melbourne concert? Unsurprisingly, the answer is an emphatic “yes”. The violinist took command of the stage from the moment she walked onto it, wearing a flowing green gown and with her long wavy hair cascading down her back. (Those who didn’t know anything about her before the concert were in for a number of pleasant surprises!).

The MSO, after an rather unremarkable performance of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3 to open the concert, at last seemed ready to do full justice to the great composer. Matheuz drew a precise and powerful sound from the orchestra to begin as concertmaster Wilma Smith led the violins in laying the musical path for the soloist. Benedetti herself was absorbed by the sound but her entry was clear and authoritative, and her technique well up to its complexity. The violin had resonance even on the highest notes as Benedetti performed the ascending phrases, including chromatic scales, with apparent ease and attention to phrasing and dynamics. In this she had fine support from Matheuz and the orchestra, so that every note was heard, every ornament appreciated. This was particularly so in the final coda in which the soloist’s striving for the heights was accompanied by gentle plucked strings. (Some audience members could not stop themselves clapping, and that was understandable).

Technique is one thing, musicality another – and both are needed to play Beethoven. Needless to say, Benedetti lived up to her name, being blessed with both. This was evident in the second movement of the Concerto – Larghetto, with the MSO again establishing the solemn theme and its eloquently phrasing. Even in this slow movement there was little rest for the soloist, although a series of beautiful long notes had depth and sonority. The faster passages were delicate, but the final Rondo swept soloist and orchestra along in long, energetic sequences. Benedetti’s role was to lead the dance, to enter into dialogue with other instruments (such as the winds), to embellish recurrent themes. A trill that seemed as if it would never end heralded the final burst of music, with soloist and orchestra in a thrilling partnership, delivering a truly Beethoven-esque ending to this concerto, the only one the master wrote for the violin.

After interval, Matheuz and the orchestra carried across much of the energy of the concerto to the final work, Tchaikovsky’s luminous Symphony no.6, known as Pathetique. The passion of the Beethoven was echoed in the approach to the first movement, Adagio then Allegro non troppo, with its lush strings and strong dynamics. The overall effect is filmic (and, indeed, at least 14 films have used this Symphony in their soundtrack, half of them in the 1930s). The orchestra played  the second movement, Allegro con grazia, with the required “grace”. The music referenced Tchaikovsky the ballet composer, while dance also dominated the sprightly third movement. The winds, especially piccolo, contributed much to the lightness of the sounds and later – with the brass – to a more military sound.

The “big finish” of this movement was so well achieved that there was enthusiastic clapping, as there had been earlier in the work. Unfortunately, this was intrusive, especially as the final movement was marked Adagio lamentoso to begin. However, Matheuz achieved the best purely symphonic sound of the night with the strings particularly sensitive to the powerful underlying emotion of the well-known theme. Bassoons, and other winds, and brass added to the portentous mood, which carried through the dramatic conclusion dominated by the lower strings. Repeated notes, then silence. And no hasty applause this time – although when it did come the applause was prolonged.

 Suzanne Yanko reviewed the performance at Hamer Hall on September 13, 2014.

Program:

Beethoven Leonore: Overture No. 3
Beethoven Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6 Pathétique

Diego Matheuz conductor

Nicola Benedetti violin

Picture of Nicola Benedetti by Matt Irwin.