Beyond Melbourne’s CBD, Robert Blackwood Hall at Monash University has been a favourite second home for our Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A perfect venue for college graduation ceremonies, its large auditorium has a broad stage suitable for the largest of orchestral settings, and a pristine acoustic that is highly favoured by the MSO and ABC for hosting commercial recordings. This MSO program had been performed on the previous night in the Melbourne Town Hall, where an added bonus to the program was a pre-concert performance by organist Calvin Bowman. As I looked at the resplendent Sir Louis Matheson pipe organ in Blackwood Hall, I felt rather sad that Bowman’s organ playing did not come to Monash. As this MSO program was curated featuring women in music in recognition of International Women’s Day, I wondered about our Australian female organists and this missed opportunity.
As audiences are still carefully returning to live performances, a modest number of regular subscribers attended, but all enthusiastically appreciated this first night back to Blackwood Hall. The occasion began with a spoken acknowledgement of Country, Long Time Living, Deborah Cheetham’s arrangement of words with string accompaniment.
Femmes de légende (Women of Legend) was an excellent opening choice. Prolific French composer Melanie Bonis composed over 300 works, studied with Cesar Franck, and was highly respected by her colleagues Debussy and Saint-Saens. From her initial collection of seven piano pieces, all personal portrayals of female figures drawn from mythology or dramatic works, Bonis orchestrated three evocative, impressionistic pieces, most sensitively performed. Two golden harps, a sensual French horn and strings opened Ophélie, establishing the atmosphere of gracefulness, delicacy and fragility of this most-often painted mystical beauty. Very French in orchestration and colour, with tempered crescendos, Ophélie seemed to float on rippling waters of strings and percussion, with oboe and woodwind instruments speaking of melancholy and gentle tragedy. Salome danced for the Kings in her more dramatic portrait, where extra percussion, winding and circular woodwind phrases evoked her sensual, impulsive dance. From the timpani and double bass team came a repeated slow five-beat ostinato pattern, and we felt the colours and sound of the desert caravan. Salome’s darker side and shifting moods were felt as tempos surged and raunchy brass triumphed. High, sustained strings and plucked harp tones introduced exotic Middle Eastern harmonies in Le Songe de Cléopâtre (Cleopatra’s Dream)with percussion glowing and shimmering in a descriptive, almost theatrical piece. Strings gave us a broad visual panorama, orchestral textures broadened, and this Cleopatra walked tall and graciously as short musical themes reflected her youthfulness pride and grandeur.
Mel Bonis herself is now truly becoming a Legendary Woman in music history.
Conductor Peter Luff gave a warm and friendly welcome to the audience, engaging us with his openness and good spirits. As program notes were only to be found by prior research on the MSO website, some attendees were caught empty handed, so Luff’s talk about the women featured in this program and his information on Kodaly’s Dances Of Galanta was a welcome gesture. He spoke of how tonight’s orchestral program gave players many solos showcasing the timbre and scope of individual instruments. Kodaly expanded the character of the Bohemian folk melodies played by gypsy bands around the Hungarian town of Galanta, taking them into the 20th Century, with zappy orchestration and rhythmic variation. Solo cello opened the first dance, emphatically but slowly, with a free tempo and much rubato, preparing us for alternating very slow – very fast sections of Andante Maestoso or Allegro. Dance No 2 particularly demonstrated the clarinet’s virtuosity, range and dynamic contrasts, with varied articulations and styles of accents demanded in its featured appearances. Solo flute, answered by piccolo introduced new colours for Dances 3 and 4, and as the energy increased, No 5 gave us upbeat strings and assertive brass and percussion announcements. Continuously flowing, the dance set increased its pace with gradual steps, the last Dance No 7 closing with an exciting Allegro Molto Vivace to much applause.
Sadly, the original proposal of Anna Clyne’s impressive five-movement composition, Dance for Cello and Orchestra, was replaced by Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 1 in C. We moved to a very different time and stage setting with a smaller MSO classical orchestra and a wonderfully international experienced and highly awarded MSO soloist, Associate Principal Cellist Rachael Tobin. We took a rest from the dance floor and appreciated this sensitive and technically accomplished artist in a refined, elegant and stylistic performance. While this auditorium is perhaps not the best venue for lift and carry of the cello’s softer low notes, concert master Dale Bartrop demonstrated excellent leadership in inspiring remarkable pianissimo softness, blend and balance from the string sections, maintaining careful balance and support. Peter Luff led the MSO in this accompanying role with excellent care, precision and sympathy. Most interesting too was the inclusion of some quite original and contemporary cello cadenzas, adding a personal touch to the performance.
With a full orchestra and six percussionists returning to the stage, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappriccio Espagnol impressed us with the truly exciting and colourful world of brilliant music inspired by Spanish dance. The MSO was simply terrific, with fluid and rousing crescendos, balanced and united ensemble work, with much individual solo work displaying the world class talents of our section leaders. Complementing the main dance program, was a well chosen encore piece, Dvorak’s popular Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op 46 No 8 – Furiant, which continued to raise our spirits with its robust accents and rousing rhythms of Eastern European folk music.
Photo courtesy MSO
Julie McErlain reviewed “Song and Dance”, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Robert Blackwood Hall on March 18, 2022.