MCO: Romance

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Published: 9th March, 2018

William Hennessy, Director of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, needs no introduction as a musician, but he is perhaps not necessarily associated with risks, although he’s admirably not afraid to take them.

This concert, the first of the MCO’s 2018 Season, had the theme “Romance”. Hennessy, in his role as Artistic Director, recast the orchestral music of Verdi, Schumann, Dvorak and Mendelssohn from large orchestra to chamber ensemble. The risk was that this “orchestra-lite” version would not have the rich, luscious beauty we would normally expect from a larger group.

It’s to his and the orchestra’s credit that this did not happen – although he still had to put together one of the largest chamber groups the MCO has ever fielded on stage. Credit also is due to Conductor Michael Dahlenburg, whom Hennessy entrusted with the baton for the afternoon. Dahlenburg is an experienced and accomplished conductor, who took the challenge in his stride.

The concert began with Verdi’s La Traviata: Act 11 Overture. Unfortunately, although it was played very well, I think the choice was a mistake. The work is a bit downbeat and didn’t really set the tone for what was to come.

It was left to Schumann to revive the Romantic spirit, and for this we had the astonishing talent of Russian pianist Konstantin Shamray. Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Opus 54, in three parts is a magnificent work which was developed, with encouragement from wife Clara, from a Phantasie for piano and orchestra into a full-bodied work. It has since been championed by music lovers all over the world and remains one of the standards of the repertoire.

Shamray, who won First Prize and People’s Choice at the 2008 Sydney International Piano Competition, is now established as one of the most exciting pianists of his generation, with a reputation for an elegantly virtuosic sensibility and insightful interpretation. His presentation is formal and could appear to some as a bit dour, but the sparkle comes from his hands.

This was a test of Hennessy’s decision to perform the work with chamber orchestra, and, perhaps surprisingly, it worked. Maybe it had to do with the Recital Centre’s perfect acoustics. For instance the reduction of the violin section to a third of a normal Symphonic size would tend to suggest a ‘tinny’ sound, but this did not happen, and Schumann’s work came through with all its intended lushness.

The second half of the concert began with composer Antonin Dvořák’s Romance for violin and orchestra Op 11. And this is where Romance met Emotion. The soloist, Markiyan Melnychenko, came from within the MCO’s own ranks, although he is already in demand on the international stage.

Of Ukrainian background and now living in Australia he has performed in 17 countries, including solo performances in New York, Washington DC and performed at the luncheon for Barack Obama’s Second Presidential Inauguration.

Dvorak’s Romance is in sonata form, scored for two flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, strings and solo violin. It is a beautifully reflective and sonorous work, notable for its graceful and calm mood. Melnychenko’s masterful performance, together with his technical mastery of the instrument, beautifully captured the essence of the Czech soul.

The concert ended with Felix Mendelssohn’s eternally popular Symphony No 4 in A Major Op 90, Italien. Once again we had a chamber orchestra perform a major symphonic work. And once again the MCO rose to the challenge.

The work has an exuberant opening, contrasting with the religious connotations of the following Andante con moto. The third movement is a minuet and trio, and the Presto finale is a combination of two Italian folk dances, all performed with joyful flourish by an invigorated ensemble who knew they had done a good afternoon’s work.

Reviewer Cyril Jones attended Romance, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s concert at the  Melbourne Recital Centre. Sunday, March 4, 2018.