MSO: Dale Barltrop and Ray Chen – Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto

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Published: 30th September, 2019

“Wow, good to be home!” beamed Ray Chen as he greeted an audience galvanized into cheering action by his electrifying performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with a chamber orchestra sized Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He had generated so much energy that listeners could hardly contain themselves, with many springing to their feet the second he had finished. Their enthusiasm was not the result of partisanship; the rapt attention throughout, when a notoriously lung-diseased Melbourne audience forgot to cough, was an indication of the mesmerising power of Chen’s playing. He invested each note with such dynamic thrust and intensity of meaning that listeners felt compelled to hang on every one of them.

Then there was the sound itself. When giving a fascinating masterclass last year, the celebrated violinist Anne Sophie Mutter spoke about a player’s relationship with his or her instrument and how cooperation had to be negotiated. It was plain to hear that Ray Chen was on excellent terms with his 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius. Full and generous in tone when needed, shaded in colours to match the musical sentiment and simply thrilling in ravishingly sweet high notes, it was the best advertisement for the Strad brand that you could hope to find. There was not only the projection that these violins are famous for, there was also nuance. Towards the end of a sweeping Allegro molto appassionato that lived up to its description, I wondered whether the audience would burst into applause rather than wait for the held bassoon note that ushers in what was an ardently poignant movement. But, no, listeners appeared to be as tuned in to cues coming from Chen as he was to his violin. Similarly, the capacity audience continued to hold its collective breath and applause in the short break between this movement and the Allegro finale, where Chen’s technical mastery was on display – as it had been in a riveting first movement cadenza.

Ray Chen glowed with a passion for the music he shares. A great sense of humour was also apparent as he chatted to the audience and played his version of Waltzing Matilda, a tongue-in-cheek interpretation that emphasized the darker aspect of this tale of a suicidal swagman. His final ghostly harmonics and tremble were much appreciated. For a second and final encore (he had been given “permission by the boss”, Concertmaster Dale Barltrop, to play one more) he chose Paganini’s Caprice No. 21. It was a splendid vehicle for displaying his virtuoso pyrotechnics, including an array of precise double stops and successive lightening-speed upbow staccatos tossed off with relaxed brilliance.

For most symphony concerts, this would have been the end of input from the “guest star”, but further delights were to come in Vivaldi’s Concerto for two violins in A minor. In the first half of the concert, the sensitive collaboration between Chen and Barltrop had been highly successful. Without a conductor as such, Barltrop’s leadership and Chen’s body language (never too extravagant or distracting) kept the orchestra in accord. With both of them as soloists the question arose whether this musical unanimity would be sustained and whether Barltrop would be overshadowed by Chen’s exuberant style and dazzling instrument. With Peter Edwards leading a further pared back contingent of strings plus a harpsichord, the end result was a rewarding marriage of musical minds and instruments. The central Largetto e spirituoso was a beautifully lyrical conversation, with Barltrop’s Guadagnini an elegant complement to Chen’s Strad, while the bravura passages of the outer movements provided a showcase for the virtuosic technique of both players.

Bookending the explosion of joy (how Mendelssohnian!) that is Ray Chen, were two orchestral pieces: Rossini’s Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers and Schubert’s somewhat neglected Symphony No. 3. The former features some unusual orchestration. There are no flutes, only one oboe and an uncommon opportunity for the piccolo to have its moment in the limelight. With Andrew Macleod sparkling along on piccolo, and Jeffrey Crellin on oboe giving the odd cue to the wind section, it was an animated performance. Adding to the fun was an exotic-looking instrument variously called, as MSO violinist Andrew Hall told us in an informative pre-concert talk, a mezzaluna, Turkish crescent or Jingling Johnny; however, he wasn’t quite sure whether percussionist John Arcaro, its enthusiastic wielder, was pulling his leg when he gave it this last name. (He wasn’t.) Schubert wrote his third symphony in 1815, just a few moths after his 18th birthday. It was given a disciplined reading that illuminated both the grace and dancing buoyancy of the work. The featured clarinet playing of Philip Arkinstall was one of its many charms.

Apart from the star attraction, which meant that the concert sold out well before the performance date, Dale Barltrop made a huge contribution to its success – and not only as a soloist. It was clear from their insistence in remaining seated and joining in the applause that his colleagues hold their leader in the highest esteem. It was one of the most memorable MSO concerts of 2019.

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Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Dale Barltrop and Ray Chen: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto” given at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on September 26, 2019.