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Published: 19th September, 2018

With much anticipation for this program, I joined a large audience in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall to hear a “passionate celebration of life, love and dance through the music of Spain”. The sad news was that highly acclaimed, international award winning guitarist Christopher Denoth was unable to perform, and that meant a re-structuring of the program, with some of our favourite pieces by Albeniz and Malats not being able to be performed. The good news was that Slava Grigoryan, our treasure and local hero, saved the day and was able to perform in his place.

Opening the concert with Granados’ Danzas Espanolas (111, V, VI), the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra set the scene with Fandango taking us straight to the sunny Spanish landscapes, music comprising a lyrical breezy melody with warm and colourful accompaniment. These were arrangements by Nicholas Buc and so were more pastorale and romantic in nature than “passionate”, and almost English folk song in style, dare I say, classical character, with simplicity and tenderness. Andalusia, so well known, was played with gentle and restrained sensuality, beautiful string playing, with lyrical contrasts.  Rondalla Aragonesa allowed more freedom in performance, one felt the hint of gypsy spirit, a scent of Flamenco fire and Espana.

Led by William Hennessey, the MCO held a very fine balance and warm intonation through all levels of dynamics, with satisfying crescendos of energy in the closing bars or climaxes. He connected well to the audience with a few words expressing “the newness”  (of the repertoire) of this Spanish programme for the MCO. He greatly enjoyed asking the audience to clap some accented Spanish dance pulse beats, syncopated and in 5/4 time, exploring a taste of what was to come.

Michael Dahlenberg transferred his role from cellist to conductor for Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez  – and trumpet, horn, bassoon, clarinet, flute and oboe players joined the ensemble. Performances by Slava Grigoryan are always brilliantly executed. He shares his own heart and soul with his technical virtuosity, he taps his heel in passion to add percussive Flamenco flair and climax, and there was always excellent rapport and sensitivity between the conductor, MCO and soloist.

I am noticing in many concerts there is a “Hush moment” – when the audience is frozen in time, not daring to move or breathe and disturb the anticipation or moment of suspense or beauty.

That occurred with the opening familiar motif of the Adagio – passionate and powerful on the guitar, haunting and penetrating on the cor Anglais  (David Reichelt). Slava Grigoryan exuded his love for this whole work, and performed with detailed contrasts of passion – sometimes nostalgic, sometimes free and dramatic, always with absolute precision and clarity in all virtuosic runs.The third movement   Allegro Gentile allowed the brass to add golden colour, and the strings to show spiccato and pizzicato string effects to punctuate the dance steps. It was a very fine performance.

As Slava had a second engagement to attend following interval, it was appreciated that he most generously played an encore for us – Sarabande  from Bach Cello Suite No 6. This slow, elegant dance was a perfect exhibition piece for the guitar. With technically exact and smooth execution of counterpoint, balanced separation of melody, accompaniment and bass lines, Slava’s mastery of the classical guitar was highly applauded.

The next work was another of Nicholas Buc’s arrangements –  Albeniz  Espana -5 pieces. As many Spanish composers were pianists who advanced their studies in Paris, many works written or arranged for orchestras are perhaps more characteristic of French Impressionism than exact dance or Flamenco traditional music. The MCO string playing here was sensuous, impressionistic, dreamy and hypnotising. A gorgeous feature was their sensitive playing of pianissimo unison notes – delicate and soft as gossamer. The first violins did sing, the overall scene was pastorale and romantic, and drone notes on the cellos added nostalgic hints of the gypsy instruments.

The final work, La Oracion Del Torro  (The Bullfighter’s Prayer) by Turina, was originally composed in 1925 for a “modern” quartet of Spanish Laudes, a double strung lute. Beautifully played, this is a very interesting work, truly impressionistic, free flowing in construction, descriptive and expressive. In it we hear and feel the anticipation and adrenalin of the crowd, the tempos and anxious rhythms of the toreadors, and the broad cello solos under high wavering string patterns and chromaticism.  We feel the toreadors “on edge”, contrasted with hymn-like reverence and hope for survival.

This ensemble led by conductor/cellist Michael Dahlenburg and director William Hennessy communicates a strong sense of awareness and love for playing together, expressing beauty and feeling in high quality string orchestral programs. Guest artist Christopher Denoth is expected to join the MCO for other concerts in their 2018 tour, and I would not hesitate to hear this program again and relish such colourful and sensitive string playing with rarely heard compositions. This was a very pleasant Sunday afternoon for a well attended, artistic performance.


Reviewer Julie McErlain spent a “very pleasant Sunday afternoon” at the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s ESPANA concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre on September 9, 2018.