What with concerts at the Sydney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne Town Hall and even Hamer Hall, it may seem that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was well and truly into its 2016 concert series already; but the real opening came on Thursday night with the return of its Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis for the first Master Series concert.
Beginning with Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music and ending with yet another monumental tone poem by Richard Strauss, An Alpine Symphony, it was very much a program close to Maestro Davis’ heart, especially since he was recently made President of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.
The inclusion of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus provided an ideal introduction to the season with Vaughan Williams’ marvellously evocative setting of Shakespeare’s words from The Merchant of Venice. “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this Bank!” is followed by words that may well have contained some deliberate political appeal in its day and certainly applies to the present: “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; … Let no such man be trusted.”
Vaughan Williams originally scored the choral part for 16 solo singers, tailoring each part according to their strengths. Even though these were singers of considerable renown in their day, the MSO Chorus managed some quite exposed passages pretty securely. Repeated high passages for the sopranos rang with youthful clarity and the voices blended beautifully in warm “sweet harmony” at key points, especially at the end. Concertmaster Dale Barltrop played the extensive passages for solo violin with expressive sensitivity.
Although no Australian composer was included in this concert, the featured artist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is an Australian. Raised in Brisbane, Ray Chen is a young superstar who, since winning the Queen Elisabeth and Menuhin violin competitions, has found a firm place on the international musical map. The fact that the Nippon Music Foundation has loaned him the 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius violin is one indication of his reputation; a raft of significant engagements with major orchestras is another.
That other charismatic young(ish) violinist Joshua Bell performed the same work on the same stage with the Australian Youth Orchestra in 2013 on a violin of equally illustrious reputation. Less exaggerated in style and manner, Ray Chen brought his own brand of individuality to Tchaikovsky’s quintessentially Romantic work. Technical virtuosity and emotional breadth characterized the first movement, which culminated in a climax of such excitement that sustained applause was the inevitable result. Following an emotionally charged second movement Andante, strongly marked rhythmic suspensions and stresses alternated with harmonics of piercing silvered purity for a Finale that raced to the finish line with brilliant bravura.
With his matinee idol good looks and elegant appearance, it came as something of a surprise to hear him thank the audience for the welcome, say how pleased he was to be “back home” and announce the encore piece in an unmistakable Australian accent. He made sure that his voice was strong enough to project to “the deaf man in the back row” – a typically expansive gesture in keeping with his desire to communicate as both a player and educator. What comes over is a personality that is at once down-to-earth and generous. His encore pieces of Paganini and Bach were studies in technical virtuosity, featuring immaculate double-stops, shifts and up-bow staccato. And they were fun.
Before the Strauss on the final night, Ormond Professor Gary McPherson of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music presented Professor Margaret Kartomi with the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award for her contribution to Australian musical life. Professor Kartomi is Coordinator of Research and Ethnomusicology at the Sir Zelman School of Music at Monash University. Among other compliments, Professor McPherson said, “Her ground-breaking field work in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is celebrated throughout the world and serves as a fitting exemplar of the finest Australian scholarship in the field of ethnomusicology”.
From this accolade and the earlier gentle English pastoral aesthetic of Vaughan Williams, attention shifted to German pastures dominated by mountainous might as recreated by Strauss. Composed in 1915, it had its genesis in an experience from his boyhood when he and a party of climbers went astray on a mountain climb and were overtaken by a storm on the descent. The 22 continuous movements stretch from pre-dawn night to post-sunset night and cover the 11 or so hours in between. All of this takes a vast array of instruments and players. It is perhaps indicative of the latter that at one point Associate Principal horn Geoff Lierse was wielding a cow bell for the On the alpine pasture scene. A wind machine and a thunder machine, an organ, 2 sets of timpani, a heckelphone (like an oboe but pitched an octave lower), and Wagnerian brass are just some of the more outstanding examples of what is required to bring this alpine portrait to life.
If the MSO played superbly in the first half of the program (there was some hauntingly beautiful interweaving of violin and clarinet, for instance) then they really excelled themselves in the symphony. It was a rare opportunity to hear an astonishing piece of music played with such power and finesse. Geoffrey Crellin’s oboe solo, depicting the awestruck gaze of a human surveying the view from On the summit, was a touching contrast to the swelling orchestration of surrounding material. Some fabulous work from the horns and trombones and the double bass section contributed to the many stunning effects that Sir Andrew drew from his orchestra.
An Alpine Symphony is one of the many heights being scaled by Sir Andrew and the MSO. So far two Strauss discs have been issued by ABC classics to great acclaim and this symphony will be included in a third. Next stop in the series of masterpieces demanding huge orchestral forces will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. So well suited to the strengths of the MSO, it will doubtless it will be another triumph for the orchestra and inspiring for lovers of Romantic classical music on a grand scale.
The photograph of the performance was taken by Daniel Aulsebrook.