The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra continues to present a concert season which celebrates not only its (mostly) youthful musicians, but also celebrates the quality of established soloists. This is particularly gratifying when these guests are Australian performers, as in its previous concert featuring the pianist Lucinda Collins with her vibrant performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17. Collins is best-known in South Australia for her teaching as well as concert appearances, but no one State can lay claim to this concert’s guest, recorder player Genevieve Lacey, as she was born in Wapenamanda, a small village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. With a repertoire strongly rooted in early music, and a career that is as likely to find her in Europe as well as Australia, Lacey continues to surprise as well as delight, and this concert for the MCO was a case in point.
Such was the importance of Lacey to this concert that she was on stage from the outset with initially with an ensemble of string players from the orchestra. The opening items were from the 12th century, the next from the 16th. Thanks to her reputation in Melbourne, Lacey is seen as an almost iconic figure in her knowledge of and performance of early music. The orchestra too was in sympathy with the music of Leonin and Perotin, described in the program as ”two of the earliest named composers of the Notre Dame school of polyphony”. Originally having a vocal sound this music was instead arranged by Lacey for violins, and other strings, the cellos and drone-like bass anchoring the whole with an admirable synchronicity. Lacey herself contributed to a slower, swaying sound, with the whole effect being very sweet and lyrical – more ike a stately dance than a motet.
Because of a change in program, one of the central works was heard quite early. This was the Recorder Concerto in C minor RV441 by Vivaldi, a showpiece for the soloist if ever there was one! Lacey delighted with her performance of the technically demanding birdsong-like passage of the first movement, both in her nimble fingering and steady breath control. There followed a lovely duet with MCO director William Hennessey, the recorder-player challenged with accidentals coming thick and fast. Typically for a Vivaldi second movement, interest was in the sustained melody carried by the solo recorder, with the orchestra contributing harmony and depth to the sound. Finally the third movement continued the partnership of soloist and orchestra, with quite different scores in front of them; Lacey’s seemed “fluttery”, yet kept its dominance against a background of a scale-based accompaniment.
The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and “curator” Genevieve Lacey certainly presented a very generous program, another notable item being Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue Opus 133, originally written for string quartet, but here expanded to give the MCO one of its particular items in the spotlight, with three times the number of musicians as required in the original work. With its contrasts and ever present elements of drama, this work was well positioned in the program to show the proficiency of the host orchestra, led as ably as always by violinist William Hennessey. It must be said, however, that even though Genevieve Lacey was not on stage for every item, her influence in shaping the program appeared evident throughout. Her final appearance was in the recorder concerto by Sammartini, which the audience greeted with some relief after a somewhat minimalist opening to the final half of the program. It had encompassed several items,and was – like everything on the program – well executed. However, the audience was not expecting it,and was far more open to the Sammartini, in which Lacey was the soloist, with Ann Morgan at the harpsichord, and Hennessey leading about 12 more string-payers.
Lacey’s recorder was quite small but resonant enough to be solo; even when unaccompanied it filled the hall with a delicate birdlike sound. The middle movement, Siciliano, had a particular interest for its swaying rhythm and the high, slow entry of the recorder. Having played almost continuously throughout this concerto Lacey fairly abruptly left the stage at the end. We hardly realised this was the end of the guest’s contribution to the program.
However, it effectively cleared the way for the final item, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, in which all players from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra combined to produce a glorious resonant sound. As at other times on the night, the first viola player Merewyn Bramble was a strong leader for her section, with William Hennessey responsible for the maturity and depth of the orchestra’s appreciation of music and its distinctive overlay of freshness. This was a less fulsome performance of a famous work which was no less satisfying for that, judging by the applause that greeted it, and ended yet another memorable MCO concert.