Attending a recent MSO concert, featuring pianist Yefim Bronfman, Peter Williams experienced a night of exceptional musicianship tinged with a little regret as this occasion was also the last that Wilma Smith was in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster chair.
The concert featured Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto and the First Symphony of Elgar. The Brahms began with clear, concerted horns giving a glorious romantic opening whilst the piano’s soft, slight agitation, lead to strong questing chords. The movement continued to grow in spellbinding spaciousness as conducted by Sir Andrew Davis; whilst Bronfman delivered immediacy, lyricism and virtuosity of great power. His playing was always nuanced with a sense of purpose from the pianissimo passages, through the arpeggios to the strongest of the huge chords, with a thoughtful use of rubato.
It has been said that the piano is the “first among equals” in this work but there was a genuine sense of dialogue between the orchestra and the soloist so that some passages seemed to organically grow out of the orchestra whilst other times out of the piano. It was collective music making at the highest level.
In the Allegro appassionato “scherzo” movement, the mood was darker, with some wonderful pizzicato work from the strings and a strong line from the cellos and double basses. Sir Andrew kept a focus on the piano, through the developing entry of brass and winds, and held control (often with the smallest of gestures) of the rallentandos and the changes of rhythm, in conjunction with the virtuosic playing of the soloist.
The opening of the slow movement began with a poignant and moving cello solo by David Berlin, before the piano entered. There were fine sustained top notes from the violins giving a gentle, open chamber-music atmosphere. Despite virtuosic trills and arpeggios Bronfman maintained wonderful contact with Berlin whom he acknowledged at the end of the concerto.
Sir Andrew chose a relaxed tempo for the start of the last movement, but he deftly led the orchestra through dynamic climaxes and the increasing brilliance of the piece. Often he was in eye contact with the soloist. At the end he picked up from the sforzandos of the piano and developed a solid sonic wall whilst allowing the soloist to build to the thunderous conclusion.
The audience showed its great appreciation for both the soloist and the orchestra. An evidently delighted Sir Andrew hugged Bronfman, after their demonstrable connection had realised the brilliant complexity of this massive piece.
The Elgar First Symphony (1908) required larger forces with more strings, winds and a second harp on stage. Sir Andrew conducted a piece for a wide emotional range that, perhaps surprisingly, did not have the bombast of Elgar the nationalist. The slow solemn “noblimente” march of the first movement came from the superbly accurate horns, while a “walking” movement for the lower strings became brisk, heavily accented strings. There was a lovely lyricism from first violins and harp over the rippling of flutes and winds while the whole brass section shone brilliantly and decisively. It was fitting also that Wilma Smith had a small solo section in this movement.
In the Allegro molto Sir Andrew brought something almost sinister to the parts where the double basses were emphasised; and there were also moments of lyricism brought out by his broad, generous gestures. The percussion and brass brought a militaristic note, but then the piece returned to the violins giving respite and joy.
The Adagio with its quietness and depth of feeling had a true sense of contentment, almost bliss. The tranquility of the second theme was well established and the effect of the muted trombones was electric, with the orchestra ending the movement in a breathtaking pianissimo.
The final movement started with a gentle lento followed by fast jagged rhythms and accents. There was always a sense of moving forward, as if searching for the substantial statement to give the symphony that sense of “massive hope for the future” as Elgar stated. The orchestra excelled with its power. The packed audience appreciated the splendid, polished work of all sections of the orchestra, especially the brass; “glittering” is a word that comes to mind.
The final moments of the concert were given over to Sir Andrew Davis who acknowledged the work and commitment of Wilma Smith and her 12 years in the Concertmaster Chair. He spoke of her skill, her artistry and her soul. He spoke of her dedication to the orchestra, the city of Melbourne, and Australia. Harold Mitchell, chairman of the MSO, recalled many moments of Smith’s career in concerts both here and all over the world: her skill, dedication and love. The audience gave three hearty cheers as streamers and glitter enveloped the stage.
Thank you, Wilma Smith, for your dignity and incredible professionalism.