Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov possesses sufficient superstar brilliance to convince concertgoers that this occasion (in February) at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, was indeed the true opening of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2017 season.
As Managing Director Sophie Galaise pointed out in her welcoming address, this year the MSO has already played many concerts to a multitude of classical music lovers, including 30 thousand at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and 200 million Chinese who heard the MSO under the baton of Tan Dun celebrate the Chinese New Year in a broadcast performance. That this Gala opening was being filmed and recorded by Foxtel Arts was a further indication of the MSO’s extending reach. There was also an emphasis on the importance of sponsorship. Two Emirates hostesses in their fetching uniforms and a video extolling Melbourne and declaring “We are the sound of your city and we need your help to be heard” brought home the message. Pity there was no Australian music on the program.
For a concert with a Russian theme, however, it would be hard to find a better exponent of the repertoire than Maxim Vengerov. As a virtuoso violinist of exceptional musicality he gave a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto that demonstrated to the many young violinists (and musicians for that matter) in the audience just how it is done. Without a shadow of affectation, he was the consummate vehicle for the music. A warm, generous tone and an approach that was grounded while remaining buoyant, he invested every phrase with musical intention. The upper notes shone and even the softest pianissimo harmonics of the first movement cadenza were gauged to draw in the listener. At the end of the first movement a smile was exchanged between Vengerov and Concertmaster Sophie Rowell, one of several indications of shared joy in music-making that evening.
Despite the virtuosic fireworks that concluded the movement there was not the applause that usually greets the end of this long, demanding movement. It seemed that the audience wanted to show the world that they were conversant with concert etiquette. After general tuning, Vengerov played the Andante Canzonetta middle movement with a muted velvety tone that radiated a dreamlike tenderness. The Finale bristled with earthy, dancing vigour and the dazzling virtuosity displayed in the first movement. The audience was thrilled, with many standing to applaud. Vengerov appeared to be genuinely touched by the reception.
He apologized for the fact that Tchaikovsky had not composed a solo work for violin. Nobody could complain about his choice of the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2, a work played with minimal vibrato and maximum refinement.
Adding further lustre to the occasion, Vengerov conducted the second half of the program: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The baton was passed by the MSO’s Associate Conductor, Benjamin Northey, who had guided his forces in sympathetic accord with Vengerov’s intentions.
It was up to Sophie Rowell to subdue the brassy menace of the sultan with sinuous grace. Her many solo passages were treated with colourful assurance and subtlety. In one of the best MSO preconcert talks to date, Mairi Nicolson described Rowell as “a woman not to be trifled with” and Rowell certainly did project the qualities of a woman capable of standing up to a bully, using wit and charm to win him over. Being no bully, Vengerov certainly did his best not to stand in her way, allowing her and the orchestra to project the score to the best of their virtuosic ability. Economical gestures and expressive body language shaped the music to reveal the power of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral tour de force.
The solo passages by various Principals were all admirable; amongst others, Berlin’s cello, Schiller’s bassoon, Crellin’s oboe, Thomas’s clarinet and the brass all endorsed Nicolson’s claim that we should hear more by this composer. The variety of means by which he manages to evoke anything from billowing waves and shipwreck to seductive wiles and everything in between is astonishing.
Vengerov himself appeared to enjoy the ride as much as the audience. He has a quality of genuineness to his style that is tremendously engaging. Even his tie-less dinner suits – grey with black shirt for the Concerto and black with white shirt for the Symphonic Suite, stripped back a layer of formality. As he kissed Sophie Rowell’s hand and beamed at the enthusiastically applauding audience, there was an uncommonly strong sense that this was an exceptional occasion when soloist, conductors, orchestral players and the audience had shared something that they all loved.