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MSO: Acknowledgement of Country

by Julie McErlain
Female conductor with arms raised, facing orchestra

How delightful was this year’s MSO Regional performance in Warrnambool which came at the end of their annual country tour. A substantial selection of repertoire, with thorough program notes – which included both a brief analysis and history of the works – young soloists and a young but authoritative and personable conductor with an exuberant and distinctive mode, all signposted an exciting annual musical and social event.

With Acknowledgement of Country, the MSO has developed a unique and powerful cultural project, a soundscape composed by Deborah Cheetham. This orchestral prologue was a warm and grand opening, with hymn-like chords accompanying a reading of the traditional language of the Gunditjmara community. The success of this gesture by the MSO could be seen by the attendance of a large representative group of Gunditjmara community members who had responded to the invitation to attend this concert.

Rossini’s Overtures achieved success and public fame when teamed up with Tom & Jerry cartoons. The variety of sudden dramatic chords, crescendos and pianissimo effects which took the musicians from a rhythmic gallopede to lyricism in an instant, was a recipe for the theatre. The Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, is an entertaining work which is clearly fun to play. With its theatrical opening featuring the woodwind, notably oboe and bassoon, playing short exposed melodies accompanied by soft pizzicato string footsteps, a sense of anticipation strikes us suddenly when the strings jump back in with full chords. Assistant conductor Tianyi Lu gave precise leadership to the orchestra’s tight and enthusiastic playing of this spirited piece. Concert goers smiled and everyone seemed pleased with their lot. There was much audience interest in the sight of the hand-made Bell-Tree, the proud addition to the percussion section, but I have to admit I was not convinced that the quality of its jingle jangle was quite in harmony with its partner – the floor of the Lighthouse Theatre stage. In other venues it may have sparkled and shone.

The highly attractive program this year included Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, featuring talented soloist and accomplished MSO violinist Anne-Marie Johnson. The first movement Allegro molto Appassionata was taken at a cracking pace, allowing the soloist to demonstrate her fine technique, especially in the challenging cadenzas, although in high upward flourishes the orchestra’s punctuation and power sometimes dominated. Performing this wonderful, popular work in different regional venues provides a great opportunity for a soloist to experiment in different venues and spaces. This concerto is interesting in that it often requires the soloist to be an accompanist to the orchestra for extended periods, so there is the added challenge of balancing the leadership between conductor and solo violin. I found the Andante, one of the most lyrical and rich “song without words” which Mendelssohn wrote, today was a little too forward moving with a consistent pulse, not quite allowing a sensuous freedom and leadership from the soloist. The crescendos building into climaxes by the orchestra, were strong, perhaps showing a little too much muscle, so more ease and rubato in phrasing, for me, would have added breadth of expression and poetic connection. The Allegro non troppo – molto vivace revealed a more balanced and flowing ensemble, more precise entries, and an enhanced lyricism from the soloist. This technically accomplished violinist brought admiration and smiles again from the audience.

Vivaldi’s Double Concerto for two violins in A minor which followed interval, was a most enjoyable, buoyant and invigorating performance. Tiffany Cheng joined Anne-Marie Johnson in a confident and secure partnership, engaging in conversations which were full of charm and grace. A smaller ensemble of strings and keyboard continuo allowed the soloists to project their energy and leadership with great gusto. The 2nd Movement Larghetto e spiritoso revealed quite splendid and confident musicianship from both soloists, and both Allegro movements, the 1st and 3rd, allowed principal cellist David Berlin to demonstrate a robust rhythmic foundation to a united ensemble.

Conductor Tianyi Lu won the audience’s respect even further by sharing her personal and professional enjoyment of the MSO’s Regional Tour with the audience, and thanking those unseen heroes –the backstage team – in a warm and gracious acknowledgement. The full orchestra then welcomed the playing of Schubert’s Symphony No 3 as one would greet a long-time, favourite friend. The woodwind section and the oboist Jeffrey Crellin in particular, enjoyed the limelight, and Tianyi Lu’s continued energy and grace gave this performance a refreshing Springtime appeal. The Minuetto expressed the earthy elements of the country folk dance in contrasting Germanic style, before rounding off this Spring tonic with a highly disciplined Presto vivace.  Melodic phrases were expertly tossed and caught by solo instruments, with playfulness and accuracy paramount from this disciplined MSO team.

A suite of three Romanian Dances (Bartok) was a highly welcomed encore, rounding off an excellent program of fine musicianship and generating smiles all round.

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Julie McErlain attended An Evening with the MSO on 7 November, 2019, at the Lighthouse Theatre in Warrnambool.

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