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MCO: Elegies & Dances

by Peter Williams

On a sunny Sunday afternoon it seemed a shame to go into a hall (even one as wonderful as Elisabeth Murdoch Hall); however, musical delights awaited with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s Elegies & Dances. The programming seemed a little unusual, beginning and ending without fanfare. But the opening piece Andante and the final Adagio were by JS Bach and that provided an arch for a journey though some wonderful chamber music. It ranged from Baroque to modern Australian taking in Grieg, Bartok and arrangements by Stokowski and Bachrich.

The first piece, Andante from the Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata in A minor BWV 1003, was an elegiac opening performed by the director and solo violinist, William Hennessy.  It was assured with the pulse of the low beats ever present, whilst the top notes sang out.  It led directly into Bach’s Concerto for Violin in A minor BWV 1041.  Here the small ensemble (nine strings) and soloist nimbly developed the serious contrapuntal nature of the Allegro.  The movements of the bass parts in the slow Andante movement contrasted powerfully with the tenderness of the solo violin.   The final Allegro Assai was a gigue with engaging bounce and vigour.  Again, the solo work was strong and there was prolonged applause from the audience.

Taking a well-earned break from playing, Hennessy addressed the audience, explaining that one of the concepts of the programming was to juxtapose elegy and dance.  It was also a chance to examine the relationship of composers across centuries and to enter beautiful dialogues.  It was also about creation and recreation as several pieces had later been arranged for orchestra.  Hennessy stressed that the performers were in dialogue too – and this was seen in the next piece as modern performers interpreted the 20th century Stokowski arrangement of 17th century Purcell’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas.  It was very moving and its warm, controlled opening brought up memories of the singer Victoria de los Angeles.  Overall, the reading eschewed any overly romantic tendency for crescendo.

The Roumanian Folk Dances of Bela Bartok which followed provided the “dance” contrast. The work was a delightful miniature of 6 dances in 6 minutes, yet had colour, intensity and vibrant rhythms.  Of particular note was the third slow dance with its gentle slides of Middle Eastern quarter notes into a Western harmonic.  Judging by the applause, the work seemed a thrilling revelation to many in the audience.

The second half opened with the dances of Grieg’s Suite from Holberg’s time, Op 40.  This work also played with influences – it is a 19th century work in the tradition of Bach and Handel, contemporaries of the Norwegian writer, Holberg.   This performance by the ensemble of 15 players gave the piece openness and clarity, and allowed the inner voices great presence – seen later in the interplay of Hennessy’s solo violin with the viola of Merewyn Bramble (pictured) in the final dance, Rigaudon.  Overall, it almost seemed a new piece.

Paul Stanhope’s work, entitled Elegies and Dances, gave this concert its name and theme.  Stanhope is a highly acclaimed Australian composer and this was an arrangement for the Chamber Orchestra. The piece was strong and evocative with many virtuosic features. It was immediately engaging with sighing figures in the cellos being pitted against what Stanhope described as an “argumentative” violin solo.  There was a build up of these strands with rising tones, pizzicato strings and percussive hitting of bows on strings.  This then seemed to fade back into the elegy of the opening, which completed the journey’s musical arc.

And the arch to end the program was made with Bachrich’s arrangement of the Adagio from JS Bach’s Suite for Strings – a very fulfilling and fitting conclusion.

Such was the power of all the pieces that the audience remained bound by the spell of the music for many seconds before applause developed; it seemed nobody wanted to break the spell.  That is a real testament to the power of the performances. The encore, another recreation of a piano piece, had the audience leaving in a smiling and generous mood.  It was Nicholas Buc’s arrangement of Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens.

Elegies & Dances certainly fulfilled its stated aim to “enchant the ears, touch the heart and inspire the mind.”

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 Peter Williams reviewed this performance by the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra on September 7. The program will be repeated on Friday, September 12 at 7.30pm at The Deakin Edge, Federation Square.

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About the composer, Paul Stanhope:

Paul Stanhope (b. 1969) is recognised as a leading composer of his generation not only in Australia but internationally with prominent performances of his works in the UK, Europe, Japan, and both North and South America.

 He writes: “My music presents the listener with an optimistic, personal geography . . . whether this is a reaction to the elemental aspects of the universe or the throbbing energy of the inner-city”.

 Recent works include his Piccolo Concerto (2013), premiered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and subsequently performed by the Adelaide and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Magic Island (2012) commissioned by the Hush Music Foundation which was recorded and premiered by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Qinoth (2011) written for the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Exile Lamentations (2007-2011) a cantata written for soloists, choir and the virtuosic talents of oud master Joseph Tawadros.

Forthcoming works include a large choral-orchestral cantata about the life and deeds of Western Australian indigenous hero Jandamarra written together with librettist Steve Hawke as well as a new piece for string quartet.  More information …

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