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Hennessy’s Beethoven

by Suzanne Yanko

The title of this Melbourne Chamber Orchestra concert, Hennessy’s Beethoven, was a hint that the founder and longtime director of the ensemble, William Hennessy, would be playing a different role on this occasion. After all, the program included music by Walton, Schubert, and a full Symphony by Haydn, and we had to wait till after interval for Beethoven. The choice of items and order were well conceived.

Haydn    Symphony No 60 in C major Il distratto
Walton    Incidental Music to Henry V
Schubert Quartettsatz D703 (arr Dahlenburg for string orchestra)

Beethoven Violin Concerto Op 61

Although better known to MCO audiences as a cellist, Michael Dahlenburg has stepped up before in the role of conductor and was to do so on this night. Haydn’s Symphony number 60 in C major, (somewhat disconcertingly named “Il distratto”) opened the program and soon settled to a mellow Romantic sound. But was closer to late Classical as it developed into the Allegro Di molto, the string sound punctuated by trumpets and horns. Perhaps the repeated phrases could have had more variety and interest but certainly the synchronicity between all instruments was all it should be. No one was “distracted” here!

The Andante, contrastingly, seemed to set the strings against the oboes and horn, not an immediately attractive concept but the players did the best they could with its oddity. They were heard to advantage when the composer brought all to a common purpose, with Dahlenburg keeping control of the dialogue.

The Minuet and Trio was more conventional, stately to begin with the brass accentuating the beat and melody. Winds and strings were more to the fore in the Trio, which was also emphatic but flowing. The MCO coped very well with the presto with the attack and good contrasts in the reiterated phrase. Dahlenburg took a minimal approach but kept the pace moving nicely.

The Adagio was perfectly correct, but took awhile to establish “feeling “, although given a clear lead by violinist Rebecca Chan. However, the ensemble again proved its ability to keep up the pace in declamatory sections. There was more of the same in the Finale, with the odd Haydn joke or two adding interest or irritation, depending on your point of view! The symphony was a good choice to begin, giving the audience confidence in this young but always reliable orchestra.

The Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V by William Walton was quite a contrast. For strings only, and with Rebecca Chan leading the ensemble, it was solemn and sweet and demonstrated the players’ sensitivity to each other particularly in the dimuendo and ending of the first piece. There was more of the same in the second piece – slow but swaying, its subtle melody surrounded by appealing harmony. This display of musicianship was all too short.

However, the same players had the chance to show even more of their skills, with Schubert’s Quartettsatz D703, arranged by Dahlenburg for string orchestra. Such arrangements can be unsubtle, but this escaped such criticism. The development seemed overly dramatic at times but this may have been a characteristic of the original work. In any case, it made for very pleasant listening and allowed admiration of the quality of the technical prowess of the players.

After interval came the justification for the name of the concert. The MCO’s director William Hennessy arrived with conductor Dahlenburg to be soloist In the Beethoven violin concerto. Even then, there was a wait as the conductor steered the MCO through the quite long introduction, subtle and restrained albeit with some percussion and quite strong winds.

From the moment Hennessy picked up his bow, this familiar work became transformed. It was all about heart, thanks to the soloist’s close knowledge of the work and his relationship to the orchestra that supported him. This was a different kind of experience from one more common these days, perhaps, in which an audience gasps at the technical prowess of the latest “wunderkind” of the violin.

There is no doubt that, respectfully steered by Dahlenburg, the orchestra was inspired to follow the soloist’s lead in interpreting this work with love. Some highlights were the second movement’s beautiful and heartfelt solo against the delicate plucked strings of the orchestra. And, by contrast, the energy and full sound from all in the third and final movement. The cadenza, with its double stopping and long trill, showed that Hennessy had more strings to his bow then simply empathy. And the dialogue to finish was like a metaphor of the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra which can rightly be called “his”.

But there is also no doubt that what inspired the roar of approval from the audience was the exhibition of heart from all concerned.

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