Mozart’s Viola

Article details

Published: 29th June, 2018

A mountain of used coffee cups and empty platters were all that remained of the “Coffee” prelude to the second concert in the Australian National Academy of Music’s 11am Mostly Mozart series. ANAM’s partnership with the Melbourne Recital Centre has attracted a large and enthusiastic following of classical music lovers keen to hear some of Australia’s top young musicians, their teachers and visiting luminaries at a more inviting time of day, especially in the midst of Melbourne’s Winter chill.

A special treat was in store for those attending this concert. Lawrence Power is the only performer that has set me speculating about the benefits of cloning. Not only does he play the violin and viola superbly; the strength of his artistic relationship with ANAM’s gifted young string players evident in this concert explained why he is in such high demand as a player and teacher around the world.

In a mini interview with the MRC’s Director of Artistic Planning, Marshall McGuire, after the first item, Power’s ability to communicate his knowledge in an articulate and engaging manner added to the enjoyment and appreciation of a program featuring musical innovation.

Certain innovative choreographic elements also made their way into the opening work from 1673: Heinrich von Biber’s La Battalia. The string players walked on playing snatches of various tunes before lining up at the music stands for eight movements in the tradition of vocal descriptions of battles and battle music for instruments by various composers. A number of unusual instrumental techniques were used to evoke images of war, including a percussive pizzicato to imitate cannon shots and a piece of paper on the double bass to produce the buzz of a snare drum. The dissonance of drunken soldiers (“Don’t worry it’s supposed to sound like that” Power reassured the audience) and a final Adagio lament as instrumentalists gradually left the stage like wounded soldiers limping home after the battle provided further drama. The fact that two ladies sitting close to me had to remove their jackets at the end gives some indication of the effectiveness of this exercise in programmatic colour; or perhaps their elevated temperature was due to Power’s virtuosity on the violin – proof that violists are far from being violinists who cannot quite make the technical grade. Power’s mastery of narrative expressiveness and fluent ornamentation quickly dispelled that myth. Whatever the case, it was a surprisingly exciting and involving performance both for the players and the audience.

English composer John Woolrich’s creative arrangement of Ulysses Awakes is a work for strings written in 1989 and inspired by the music of Monteverdi. Power described it as though a grenade had been thrown into all the notes written by Monteverdi. With the viola acting as the “singing voice”, the ANAM strings became almost a recitative accompaniment. It was to the young players’ credit that they generally managed to follow the free, flowing lines of impassioned declamation in effective unison.

After hearing the broad, warm resonance of Power’s viola in the Woolrich, some listeners might have been wondering how he could possibly blend in as the extra viola for Mozart’s String Quintet No. 1. Perhaps the most striking instance of his extraordinary capacity came when he had to repeat a phrase played by the other viola player, Molly Collier-O’Boyle. The shaping of the phrase volume and, amazingly, the timbre were all matched. It was a passing moment but a compelling one. The musical conversation between Power and Kyla Matsuura-Miller’s violin were a constant delight. As second violin Sunyoung Kim matched the beautiful tone of the other players, especially in her little solo passage, as did cellist Liam Meany.

Although reactions to particular performances always have a personal dimension, the audience response to their exquisite playing endorsed my feeling that this one of the best examples of small chamber music playing that I have heard from ANAM (or any) students. The way they revealed the genius of the 16-year-old Mozart was something very special and confirmed Power’s belief that Mozart’s brilliant achievement was the reason so few quintets like this were composed subsequently.This was yet another concert that demonstrated the value of ANAM as an institution that nurtures and inspires our musicians to achieve their potential and enrich Australia’s cultural life. From all reports, the repeat concert held a couple of nights later with the addition of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony was equally stunning.

Heather Leviston heard Lawrence Power with the Australian National Academy of Music Strings at the Melbourne Recital Centre on June 14, 2018.