Apparently, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Season Finale” at Robert Blackwood Hall was not a “Gala”, unlike the identical program the following evening at Hamer Hall, yet it had even more reason to be designated as such. Not only did the Monash concert premiere a significant new work, it also celebrated the return of Markus Stenz, the MSO’s respected and popular Artistic Director and Chief Conductor from 1998 to 2004. Stenz may have acquired some distinguished silvering of the hair, but youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy continues to animate his conducting.
Those purchasing tickets expecting to hear one of the world’s great virtuoso violinists, Maxim Vengerov, play Shostakovich’s brilliant Violin Concerto No 1 as advertised, might have been disappointed at the change of program; nevertheless, there were ample compensations in Qigang Chen’s new Violin Concerto. Commissioned by the MSO and four other music organisations, it was written expressly for Vengerov – just as Shostakovich’s concerto had been written for another great Russian violinist, David Oistrakh. It is always a special occasion when composer and artist come together in this way and even more so when it is a premiere with the composer present and able to take a bow to prolonged applause – as was the case in this instance.
Of all music by Chinese composers that by Tan Dun is most familiar to Melbourne audiences. Qigang Chen’s musical voice is in many ways a similar blend of East and West. The impetus for La Joie de la Souffrance (The joy of suffering) was his own experience of growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and, according to the program note, the belief that “those who have not tasted the bitterness of life do not know how to cherish the happiness that follows, nor will they understand that the arrival of joy is usually connected with the enduring of pain”. An appealing work, its theme is a limited variation of the ancient Chinese melody “Yang Guan”, that draws its origins from a poem by Wang Wei. In its 25-minute duration there are periods of heightened anguish, but much of it is devoted to a more serene, if intense, contemplation of existence. The work begins with the solo violin emerging from pizzicato cellos. A plaintive melody evokes something of the voice of negro slaves – the voice of the oppressed – and, later, aspects of jazz idioms could be heard. Vengerov was emotionally persuasive in his masterful control of a range of virtuosic violin techniques, especially in the cadenzas, and his total command of repeated long, slow phrases that sustained momentum and intention. The refined, singing tone of his 1727 ex-Kreutzer Stradivari carried beautifully as the work slowly faded into the ether of a high solo pianissimo.
It is customary for visiting artists to provide a short encore after a concerto – often a movement from a work by Bach. Just as I was wondering what could possibly be played as Qigang Chen left the stage, Vengerov revealed that it would be Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois. It is unusual to have the orchestra participate in an encore but it was easy to see why this piece had been chosen. It is familiar, popular and a great display piece for virtuosity. Vengerov seemed to toss it off as though it presented no technical difficulty whatsoever and prompted the biggest outburst of cheering for the evening.
And yet, despite being impressed by the playing, for the first time I started wondering about cultural appropriation. Is the “Chinois” aspect a kind of musical equivalent of “blackface”? Or are cultural “borrowings” merely a time honoured tradition in all art forms? The passion for orientalism has enriched so much Western art that it can hardly be argued against. When Vengerov was last in Australia in 2017 to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, the program included Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – a dazzling amalgam of East and West. Perhaps Australians can be particularly sensitive to this issue given the way our indigenous culture has been exploited at times. Besides which, Qigang Chen had just demonstrated how successfully two cultures can be respectfully and artistically merged.
Virtuosity was not confined to Qigang Chen’s work. There was plenty from all principal players and sections, and the orchestra as a whole in the works that bookended the program. Lush, superbly blended string tone launched the concert and Wagner’s Parsifal: Prelude and Transformation Music. Conducting without a baton and with virtually no reference to the score, Stenz conjured up Wagnerian passion, sometimes using gestures worthy of the exuberant style of Wagner himself. Every phrase was shaped by his hands and sometimes by his whole body – rounded and encompassing. Understandably, the fiercely exacting score of the final work, The Rite of Spring, was given greater attention.
Stravinsky joins Wagner in being a revolutionary composer who rose to fame by writing for the theatre – ballet and opera, respectively. No matter how many times you hear Stravinsky’s great work, it still has the power to astonish, particularly when played by an excellent orchestra in a suitable venue. Robert Blackwood Hall is small enough to provide a high level of immediacy without the volume of the large forces required by Wagner and Stravinsky being unpleasantly loud. There is both clarity in the sound and space for it to develop and integrate. The listener cannot help but be grateful that the music is coming from a relatively spacious stage rather than a cramped pit. From the opening high bassoon notes via pounding rhythms, swirling winds, snarling brass and heaving weight of bass instruments to the climactic sacrificial thud, this was our MSO at its finest. Any feelings of disappointment from the absence of the Shostakovich were similarly demolished.
Heather Leviston attended the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Season Finale at Monash University, Robert Blackwood Hall on November 30, 2018.