10th Birthday Gala Concert

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Published: 11th February, 2019

It was the best value ticket in town and accessible to anyone managing to purchase one before they quickly sold out. For a mere ten dollars you could join in the excitement of Melbourne Recital Centre’s 10th Birthday Gala Concert – a landmark celebration both literally and figuratively.

It is easy to be cynical about politicians’ funding of the Arts, but Victorian Governments of both persuasions have given the development of Melbourne’s Arts Precinct a priority that signals an appreciation of the importance of a city’s cultural life. With the crucial financial and moral support of local philanthropists, outstanding infrastructure has been built to attract and showcase some of the best talent the world has to offer. Needless to say, much of that talent is homegrown.

A most generous lover of the Arts in its various forms, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch has left a legacy in the form of an eponymous Hall that is a bright jewel in Melbourne’s cultural crown as The Arts Capital of Australia. The opening of the MRC coincided with Dame Elisabeth’s 100th birthday – surely an ideal way to celebrate such a significant occasion – and she would have been thrilled at was has been accomplished over the last ten years.

As the audience entered, images of the hall and many varied performances were projected in layered patterns onto the woodwork at the back of the stage. The focus shifted onto the performing artists when the concert began, leaving “10 years of great music” as the signature theme.

An acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land rang true as celebrated musician and composer, William Barton, and his mother, Aunty Delmae Barton, opened the musical proceedings with Birthday Gift. Barton’s didgeridoo resonated through the space seeming to link the surrounding carved curves with the natural world and the earth beneath. Joining his guitar and vocal work, Delmae Barton, dubbed “Australia’s Dreamtime Opera Diva”, made an extraordinarily powerful contribution singing in her native language and English. Very appropriately, William Barton is Melbourne Recital Centre’s 2019 Artist-in Residence.

An emphasis on participation across multiple generations of performers from diverse backgrounds saw the inclusion of seven young talented students from Victorian Government secondary schools. Through the MRC’s 2018 Accelerando program they received mentorship and special access to encourage and inspire their performance skills and musical development. In a special arrangement for voice, guitar, saxophones, cellos and cornet they gave a smooth performance of Newley and Bricusse’s Feelin’ Good.

Each item was introduced by people with a special connection to what followed. Julie Kantor spoke about her grandmother’s love of the Adagio movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, although I am reliably informed that it was the slow movement of his Clarinet Concerto that was Dame Elisabeth’s absolute favourite. In another cross-generational performance, the former Artistic Director of the Australian National Academy Music (ANAM), Paul Dean, combined with the strings of the Partridge Quartet, first-prize winners of the 2018 ANAM Chamber Music Competition, to produce a reading of marked sensitivity and delicacy.

Teachers and pupils were heard together in two short Ragas featuring the veena, an Indian classical music instrument that in many respects resembles a large lute and requires similar careful tuning. Twin masters of the instrument, Ramnath and Gopinath lyer (or the lyer Brothers) are internationally renowned as a unique duo in Carnatic music. I did wonder why, given the famed acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, it was necessary to amplify this wonderfully hypnotic music.

When it came to a meeting of the generations, the performance of Liszt’s familiar Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Judy Hall, Timothy Young and Alex Waite gave the audience a special thrill. The hearty standing ovation for this teacher-pupil trio was mainly directed towards distinguished Gippsland pianist Judy Hall, who has been teaching for over 70 years and will soon turn ninety-seven. She began teaching Young when he was seven-years-old and, judging from the sprightliness and sense of humour on display, her capacity to bring out the best in her charges was still in evidence. Hall and Young shared a piano, with Hall seeming totally unfazed by Young’s habitual practice of playing from an iPad. Her obvious love of music and joy in sharing it was followed by a little heel kick as she walked off stage. There would have been many in the audience wishing they had been taught by this remarkable woman. Even practising scales might have been fun.

After interval, several awards were made. Ronald Farren-Price is another much loved artist, revered as both a performer and teacher. Adding to his many awards, including the Sir Bernard Heinze Memorial Award conferred on him last year, the MRC awarded Life Membership to both him and his wife for their contribution to music internationally and in Australia. Ruth Farren-Price acknowledged the honour and spoke about the MRC feeling like a second home. As the penultimate artist performing that night he gave a beautifully considered performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata and a spirited interpretation of Sevilla by Albéniz.

Many in the audience shared the feeling of the MRC being their second home, but Richard Govern’s passion for music has made him, by far, the most frequent attendee, averaging about three concerts per week over the last ten years. His MRC Life Membership was a recognition that a great venue, great artists and great music also required “a great audience”. In his backstage chat with Mairi Nicolson during the ABC Classic FM broadcast (which can now be heard online) he named classical music and jazz as his preferred genres. He would have been pleased with the opening item for the second half of the program. Another inspiring pianist/educator, Tony Gould, joined double bassist Ben Robertson to infuse a couple of jazz standards with his special brand of tender lyricism.

Distinguished composer Helen Gifford was in the audience to hear gifted young harpist Melina van Leeuwen perform the most avant-guard sounding piece on the program: her 1967 composition, Fable.

As the youngest performer, Christian Li’s virtuosity in the final item for the evening, Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, placed an emphasis on the future. Even knowing his reputation of being the youngest ever joint Junior 1st Prize-winner at the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition, it still came as a surprise to hear a small eleven year-old produce such a full tone. In the hands of Robin Wilson, ANAM’s Head of Violin, he is bound to have his prodigious talent guided in a way that enables him to join the ranks of the great artists that Australia has produced.

This concert was an exhilarating celebration of musical artistry and the entrepreneurial spirit of the Melbourne Recital Centre that seeks to nurture it.

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Heather Leviston attended the Melbourne Recital Centre’s 10th Birthday Gala Concert on February 8, 2019.