Beethoven and Dvorak

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Published: 16th March, 2014

Having interviewed Eddie Perfect, Peter Williams visited the concert the actor was to present and found the visit more than worthwhile …

The MSO Prom Season began at the Melbourne Town Hall with a packed, eager and mostly young audience.  Whether it was the earlier time, the interesting programs, the cheaper seats, or the informal nature of Proms, (one audience member said that it was the least confusing choice of subscriptions) it worked in delivering a good audience for an immensely enjoyable concert.

Red downlights picked out the pipes of the organ behind the large orchestra and the program began with Eddie Perfect introducing the series, the conductor and the first piece.  It was Dvorak’s Carnivale Overture – an appropriate choice that Dvorak described as a “carnival where pleasure reigns supreme”.  The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, under Benjamin Northey, really did set off an explosion worthy of a carnival.  The expansive full orchestration, dynamics, speed and dance-like rhythms with frenzied triangle, cymbal and tambourine, captured one aspect of the overture’s original title “Life”, whereas the slower and quieter sections, featuring lovely playing from flute, oboe and clarinet, was more introspective. It ended in jubilation – and then great applause from the appreciative audience.

Perhaps it might have been better to have Perfect talking during the reconfiguration of the stage for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2.  After a gap he came on and explained that the second was actually composed before the first Concerto which explains the debt to Mozart  – who was still alive and would write some further piano concertos himself.

Young Australian pianist Jayson Gillham was the soloist and he handled the interplay of the strong dotted rhythms and the lyric passages well.  I particularly liked the build-up from an almost fugal start of the cadenza to the quite improvised feel in its progression.  The second movement was a highlight in Gillham’s intense quietness and “con gran espressione” as called for in the score.   (It was a pity that there was a distraction with air-conditioning noise.)

The third movement can be all fun with its off-beat rhythm; later when the theme is actually played on the beat, it almost sounds wrong.  The tempo was well-judged and the interplay between soloist and orchestra was well-nuanced under Northey’s direction.  Again, the audience responded enthusiastically.  The orchestra too signaled delight at Jayson’s performance with clapping rather than the strings’ customary tapping of their bows on music stands.

Whilst Prom fare sometimes can be regarded as run-of-the-mill or even unsophisticated, Dvorak’s 8th Symphony in G Major was no such piece.  Perfect stood aside for Northey to introduce this piece and the conductor pointed out that characterising it as only of delightful and rustic melodies didn’t allow for the G minor opening, nor for the “moments of great intensity” though out the work.  In the second movement I especially liked the haunting solo clarinet parts with the rather uncommon note intervals. The piece as a whole had several soloists, especially the flute, as well the entire cello section on display.

Northey explained that the G major triad that is first heard in the flute could be the memory of the three children Dvorak lost in infancy.  Certainly other commentators have described this triad as “childlike” rather than rustic.  That memory then gives rise to the inner movements of bitter-sweet intensity that Northey drew from the orchestra.   He also explained that as it was not a commissioned work, Dvorak may have had more freedom and desire to express himself.  Dvorak is known to have said that he was brimming with melody when writing it.

Both the delight and the bitter-sweet moments were evident in the performance. It never dragged; never became too lushly romantic.  It showed soloists and orchestra working in a way that was very persuasive and respectful.

For the encore, the chosen piece was by another Czech composer, Smetana.  It was piece from The Bartered Bride, known as the Dance of the Comedians.  It was the ideal time to turn the tables on Perfect and have him take the podium and the baton. (He seemed to think it was a Harry Potter wand!)  With helpful hints from Northey on gestures to get the best out of an orchestra, Perfect was able to keep to the strong 2/4 rhythm, the MSO sailed through a delightful, rapid Slavonic dance tune – and the piece provided an amusing end to a most enjoyable evening of music.

I’m still hoping for bunting and Land of Hope and Glory at the final concert, in true Proms tradition.