As 2019 winds down, four of our major symphony orchestras bid farewell to their Chief Conductors. Nicholas Carter from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Alondra de la Parra from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will be handing over their musical batons to yet-to-be-announced successors. In this modern age of FIFO maestri, it certainly will be a challenge replacing the popular Davis, as he has left an indelible mark on this city’s cultural landscape since first taking up the MSO’s reins in 2013. His final concerts in his current role will be in late November – Humperdinck’s Fairytale opera Hansel and Gretel – and of course seasonal favourite, Handel’s Messiah in December. However, it is not quite vale Sir Andrew, for luckily he will be returning to our shores next year in his new role as MSO Conductor Laureate.
Tonight’s concert, however, represents Davis’s final concert in the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format. In a poignant twist, the composer of the musical hors d’oeuvre is Sir Andrew’s son, Ed Frazier Davis. Fire of the Spirit, an MSO commission receiving its première,is set to a quasi-religious text by Hildegard von Bingen and it is a work that exploits the full resources of a large symphonic orchestra. Large washes of orchestral colour featuring a small armada of percussion and lustrous string textures intermingle with quieter passages that highlight more soloistic melodic strands. The MSO Chorus sang commendably, intermittently engaging in portamento effects and hushed whispering, but balance issues meant that their text was not always clearly discernible.
For his final official concerto performance Sir Andrew was joined by one of Australia’s most pre-eminent musicians, London-based pianist Piers Lane, in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 in C major. Lane is very familiar to audiences, not only through his extensive and wide-ranging discography and performances, but also through his stellar direction of the Townsville Chamber Music Festival, and, more recently, taking over as Artistic Director of the Sydney International Piano Competition (for pianophiles, its next edition is in July 2020). Now leading a reduced-sized orchestra, Davis emphasised the graceful lyricism of the opening Allegro while Lane, unusually playing from an I-pad score, delivered a reading marked by limpid clarity and unceasing refinement that effortlessly projected, even in the quietest of moments, throughout the auditorium. Davis’s sympathetic accompaniment played no small role in this, striking just the right balance between soloist and orchestra. Lane’s central slow movement was noteworthy for its unaffected lyricism, eloquently simple and direct, aided and abetted by a mellifluously-honeyed clarinet solo. Beethoven’s wit, at least his musical one, is too often down-played and in the bucolic finale Lane brought just the right mix of joie de vivre and youthful, jousting humour. His much-appreciated encore aptly continued this jesting vein: Dudley Moore’s musical spoof mixing Beethoven’s grandeur and gravitas with more than a splash of surprise and wit.
Ralph Vaughan Williams has made probably the most substantial contribution to the symphonic repertoire of any English composer in the twentieth century and his Symphony No 5 is surely his finest. It remains an undeniably optimistic work, and not only because of the many thematic allusions to his opera The Pilgrim’s Progress on which he was working simultaneously. While many commentators argue that angular atonality and strident expressionism were the inevitable outcome of the terrors of World War 1, Vaughan Williams takes a different path, here giving free rein to an imaginatively elegiac, pastoral lyricism that provides the perfect musical antidote to Continental Europe in the throes of World War II. Moreover, whatever one’s political persuasion today, and notwithstanding the fact that many commentators opine that we currently live in the most peaceful era known to humankind, the current Zeitgeist is one of prevailing unease and uncertainty. Vaughan William’s Fifth Symphony is just as relevant and just as needed today as it was in the 1940s. Vaughan Williams seeks to persuade rather than bellow, exploring lustrous soft-hued tones rather than blazingly self-conscious clamorous colours. Understated and sitting for the most part amidst the softer dynamic plateaus, it explores homogeneity rather than conflict, euphony rather than contrived dissonance. And from go to whoa, Davis’s reading, impeccably-paced, was utterly persuasive – no thunder bolts and lightning here, just unqualified self-effacing musicianship that brought his illustrious term with the MSO, or at least its symphonic chapter, to a gloriously satisfying, apt, and reassuring conclusion.
Saturday night’s performance of this programme will be broadcast on ABC Classic December 6, 2019 and January 18, 2020
Glenn Riddle reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert “Piers Lane Plays Beethoven” given at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on November 22, 2019.