Bedrich Smetana’s Bartered Bride Overture (1886) introduced the Melbourne audience to heaving Czech village life. The tempo was brisk, the rhythms were bouncy and the fast quavers in the strings illustrated the harmonic changes before the oboe entered with a calming countermelody. The night’s conductor Jakub Hrusa balanced the forces pleasingly and delivered a cohesive and transparent performance. This was an uplifting start to a night of delightful music.
The first half of the program remained within the Czech idiom presenting one of the most wonderful late 19th Century violin concertos, Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor with British violinist Jack Liebeck.
The concerto was dedicated to Joseph Joachim, one of the most influential violinists of the 19th century. After a few revisions, Joachim was willing to premiere Dvorak’s concerto in London in 1884. Due to the composer’s unavailability to conduct his own work, Joachim lost interest in the work, and the premiere performance was given by Frantisek Ondricek in Prague in 1883, who subsequently toured the concerto throughout Europe. The work is in three movements: Allegro ma non troppo, Adagio ma non troppo and Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo, the latter somehow reminiscent of the third movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The “ma non troppo” [but not more] additions at the end of each movement’s title seem to be warnings to play the first and third movement not too fast and the second not too slow. In last night’s performance Maestro Hrusa—conducting from a miniature score—these tempos were well set and the balance between soloist and orchestra was superb. The soft passages in the strings were warm and beautiful, supporting the night’s soloist Jack Liebeck—Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London—in delivering his interpretation of the concerto. The audience enthusiastically received the soloist’s performance and thoroughly enjoyed his encore.
The highlight of the evening was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The work itself is truly unique, artistic and full of exotic soundcolours that take the listener to the orient.
Out of anger due to his unfaithful first wife, Sultan Shahriyar decided to marry a new virgin every day, beheading each of his wives after the first night. After murdering more than a thousand women, the sultan finally was introduced to Scheherazade. She told her story but did not finish telling it. The sultan, excited to hear the end of the story, spared her life and invited her to come back the next night. That night she finished the first story and started a second one, which, again, she did not finish. After 1001 nights and stories Scheherazade had no more stories to tell. Luckily, by that time, the King had fallen in love with his storyteller, married her and made her Queen Scheherazade.
Based on this story from the Arabian Night’s, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov illustrates a selection of episodes in his exotic tone poem Scheherazade composed in 1888. After a majestic opening depicting Sultan Shahriyar’s voice, the solo violin (Scheherazade) and the harp establish the Arabic soundscape of the work. This sweet theme is set as counterpart to the dark sonorities in the rest of the orchestra. It recurs multiple times during the work and links the four oriental tales. At last night’s performance, the violin solos were stylishly performed by concertmaster Eoin Andersen and well supported harpist Yinuo Mu.
Conductor Hrusa conducted from memory and maneuvered the forces persuasively through the score. Moreover, the score gave the MSO musicians the opportunity to showcase their individual instrumental capabilities, which they did to utmost satisfaction. (I could not help but thinking of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra). The violin and cello solos were warm and matching in timbre and phrasing, the flute solos were lovely, the bassoon solos were confidentially stylish, and those for oboe and clarinet were crisp. The horn and trombone soloists were also on top of their parts. Interestingly, the second trombone rather than the principal trombone performs the solos for the trombones. Similar to the Mozart Requiem—which also indicates the famous Tuba Mirum solo for the second trombone—Rimsky initially might have wanted to use an alto trombone for the principal part, hence composing the tenor trombone solo in the second trombone, the only tenor trombone in the section. A special mention must be given to the percussion section. Especially the snare drum and tambourine parts are amongst the trickiest in orchestral percussion and MSO percussionists Robert Clarke and John Arcaro—the latter equipped with three different tambourines to achieve a perfect sound—made these sound easy and natural.
Mario Dobernig reviewed this performance at Hamer Hall on October 1, 2015. The picture is of the conductor, Jakub Hrusa.