MSO: Romeo and Juliet

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Published: 13th May, 2019
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What better antidote to the tedium of a federal election campaign than spending a rain-soaked Friday night with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a Russian-hued program within the confines of an inviting Hamer Hall? Featuring the dynamic young Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky together with his equally young compatriot pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, this concert promised much.

The concert opened with a rousing performance of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. This evocative tone-poem – one of the first ever written by a Russian composer – was never performed during the composer’s lifetime, but has gained popular acclaim with modern audiences through Stokowski’s adaptation used in Walt Disney’s celebrated animated film Fantasia. Under the disciplined baton of the cravat-wearing Kochanovsky, explosions of euphonious brass fanfares, coupled with well-honed synchronicity of the lightning-fast MSO strings made for a riveting musical impression of this whirlwind of mid-summer mayhem.

Then followed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor with guest pianist, Yulianna Avdeeva. Symphony orchestras infrequently program either of Chopin’s two youthful piano concertos – and one can understand why as there is minimal interest in the orchestral writing. This is hardly surprising given that Chopin wrote his various works for piano and orchestra as “calling cards” to display not only his compositional skills but also his unique approach to piano-playing when he was starting out as a professional musician. Necessarily the focus is on the pianist, but so much the better when one has an artist of the calibre of Avdeeva at the ready. Avdeeva established her credentials as a Chopinist of note when she won the 16th iteration of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 2010 before a jury that included Martha Argerich. Moreover, Avdeeva was the first female winner of this Olympian competition since 1965 when the winner was none other than la Argerich.

Resplendent in (what I am told) was an emerald green frock-coat over black capri pants, Avdeeva delivered an arresting account of this, the second concerto that Chopin wrote. The unhurried tempo of the opening movement underlined its maestoso quality, but Avdeeva’s rubato-infused reading was equally notable for its lightness of touch and a sublimely lyrical second theme. The second movement Romanze featured more spell-binding poetry, Avdeeva’s delicately nuanced tonal palette holding the audience in rapt attention. The infectious impetuosity of the virtuosic third movement’s Krakowiak dance rhythms brought the concerto to a dazzling end. Avdeeva’s encore – the C sharp minor Nocturne (posthumous) was deliciously seductive, a model of refinement and good taste. One could hear a pin drop.

Ballet scores do not come much finer than Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Composed in 1935 – shortly before the virtuoso pianist/composer returned to live permanently in the Soviet Union after two decades abroad – its scenario initially concluded with a happy ending but after much to-ing and fro-ing, politicking, and at the urging of conductor Yuri Fayer, Prokofiev finally agreed to revert to the original Shakespearean ending.

Kochanovsky’s was an assured reading, astutely paced, and consistently well-balanced texturally. Notable features were the rapid-fire exchanges of The Quarrel, the frenzied moto perpetuo of The Fight scene, the effervescent joy of The Young Juliet, and the portentous sonorities of the celebrated Dance of the Knights. Clearly at home in this repertoire, Kochanovsky elicited a captivating performance from the MSO.

As a tangential post-script, one can’t help but be dazzled by the continuing influence of William Shakespeare some 400 years after his death. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries his work left the deepest of impressions on composers as diverse as Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Prokofiev. Today we witness a continued fascination with the bard’s work via our own Laz Buhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet – surely one of cinema’s finest Shakespeare adaptations for the screen – and even more recently Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, the sensation of the 2018 Adelaide Festival. But equally there is a piqued interest in what little we know of Shakespeare’s life – inspiring the cleverly-written BBC satirical comedy Upstart Crow to the Ben Elton-scripted film All is True which attempts to unravel the final years of Shakespeare’s life and which has only just opened this week in cinemas in Australia. Tonight’s performance by the MSO added yet another layer to this unending fascination – and it was joy to witness.

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Glenn Riddle reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Romeo and Juliet” given at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on May 10, 2019.