MSO: Great Classics

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Published: 18th April, 2015

American violinist and superstar Sarah Chang was the soloist for the Melbourne Symphony orchestra’s recent Great Classics concert, and it appeared that the whole program was centred on her. Hardly surprisingly, as the concert was called Sarah Chang in concert, and the great classic in question was the famous Violin Concerto by Max Bruch. The full program comprised:

Ives Three Places in New England 

Bruch Violin Concerto No.1

Nielsen Symphony No.4 The Inextinguishable

Chang’s performance style is uniquely dramatic so the choice of Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England for the opening work proved a fine introduction to the central concerto. Ives’ experiences were captured in three places in New England, each part titled for – and conveying – a specific location. Sir Andrew Davis proved as knowledgeable about the music as his conducting would indicate, with an introductory talk that illuminated each part.

Newcomers to Ives’ unique style might still be thrown by the composer’s peculiarities, such as his habit of having two different parts of the orchestra play entirely different music. Comments overheard were that it was “very American”, “noisy” and even “cacophonous”. However, Davis revels in keeping such complex music under control while still managing to give sympathetic rendition of the music. It was exciting to hear, with the brass and percussion in their element. The strings were important as a contrast as they, with the winds, balanced blaring folk tunes with the sweeter sounds of nature, particularly in the third piece. This celebrated the simple pleasure Ives had in walking with his wife (the deliciously named Harmony Twichell).

After the piece, there was a full-scale re-arrangement of the stage, with an unusually generous space left for the soloist. This was surprising – until Sarah Chang strode onto the stage and immediately owned it. In practical terms, the frequent flourishes of her bow meant that concertmaster Dale Barltrop and other first violins needed to be put out of harm’s way! It was distracting, perhaps, but no more so than Chan’s inspired choice of lurex gown.

There was plenty of substance in Sarah Chang’s performance, however. Her strength was put to the test in the Bruch Violin Concerto, particularly in its famous syncopated passages, and allowed her sound to rise above even the full power of the strings. There was technical brilliance, as expected, but also a sweet resonance that understood the depth of this passionate music. Sir Andrew Davis conducted in a way that was respectful to the soloist on centre stage, but left no one in any doubt of the orchestra’s ability to manage this demanding score. The crescendos at the end of the first movement were exciting but it was the quiet of the closing moments that was breathtaking.

Sarah Chang set the tempo and pattern from the outset in the Allegro. It has been played faster, but rarely with such enthusiasm. Chang even danced as the orchestra played its own “solo”, before again assuming a commanding stance for the pyrotechnics that brought the work to a close. The MSO had promised much in their publicity for Sarah Chang, and we were not disappointed.

As if to assert its own credentials without a soloist, Davis and the MSO rounded off the concert with Nielsen’s Symphony No.4 The Inextinguishable by displaying its full arsenal of techniques, the strings seamlessly moving from pizzicato to furious bowing, and the gentle winds making themselves heard through forte passages, without sounding forced. There was much to admire in this performance, not least Barltrop’s beautiful solo in the second movement. A drum that had sounded ominous earlier in the work developed to be almost overpowering in the climactic finish, with the work proving to be just the choice to end an evening of big, exciting sound. Certainly the whole program made the case for going to hear a full symphony orchestra for an experience like no other!