Opening night galas always have a certain frisson as they set the scene for the coming musical year. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2018 season kicked off with a largely full Hamer Hall eager to hear both legendary Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire and home-grown wunder-tenor Stuart Skelton. Of course Chief Conductor Sir Andrew Davis held the reins of what was an in-form MSO. A great night was in store. Proceedings opened with a presentation to philanthropist Lady Potter who was made a Life Member of the MSO. This was an appropriate, and clearly appreciated, recognition of one of the most generous supporters of the Melbourne Classical Music scene.
The concert proper opened with 2018 Composer-in Residence Carl Vine’s Microsymphony. Originally commissioned and premiered by the Sydney Youth Orchestra, the Microsymphony is a joyous work that alternates between boisterously infectious tutti dance rhythms and softer sections where motivic gestures fly left and right around the orchestra. While there may be a dash of Stravinsky here and a pinch of Copland there, the work remains quintessentially Vine and merits its frequent performances. Perhaps it was a shame that the season didn’t open with an entirely new work, but Vine, perhaps Australia’s most internationally recognised composer, has been commissioned to write a new symphony for the MSO that will be premiered later this year. Something to look forward to.
Then followed Beethoven’s mighty Piano Concerto No 5 the ‘Emperor’ and one could wish for no better principal protagonist than Nelson Freire. Several nights earlier Friere had delighted audiences with his solo recital at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, and here too it was Freire’s composure and glorious sonority that won over listeners. Sitting quite high at the piano and a picture of concentration throughout, Freire’s eyes rarely strayed from the keyboard. With a performer of Freire’s ilk – he’s surely played this work several hundred times – and so ably supported by the ever-reliable Davis, there was no need. Freire has the quirky, albeit inoffensive, inclination to play some prominent bass notes an octave lower than written, but why not if it means an even richer tonal palette that is allowed to penetrate into the depths of the vast expanse that is Hamer Hall. Defining features of the performance were the taut, yet never unyielding, rhythmic control in the opening movement, silkily smooth trills that grew seamlessly and organically in the flowing second movement and an ethereal transition into the Rondo third movement that often featured a feathery touch where other performers are prone to lapse into scalic bombast. Overall, this was a majestic performance, marred only ever so slightly by a momentary lapse in the opening movement’s mini-cadenza.
Opera and ballet orchestras often welcome the opportunity to forsake the relative anonymity of the opera house pit, for the more public concert stage exploring symphonic repertoire for a visible audience. No doubt, traditional symphony orchestras likewise revel in the chance to explore the highways and byways of the operatic repertoire. It certainly seemed the case for this Gala performance as Maestro Davis led the MSO through excerpts from Beethoven’s Fidelio, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Verdi’s Otello. Opera doesn’t come much better than this and tenors don’t come much better than Stuart Skelton. From Florestan’s piercing opening cry of Gott! Welch’ Dunkel hier! through the poetic declamation of Siegmund’s Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnewond and finally to Othello’s emotion-laden closing aria Niun mi tema Stuart Skelton brought convincing on-stage characterizations to his wondrously sonorous tenor, one that soared effortlessly throughout the auditorium leaving the captivated audience enthralled. Skelton was undoubtedly the star of the evening characterising each respective protagonist individually, dramatically and convincingly. Which is not to diminish the input of the Melbourne Symphony who provided skilled support throughout. Skelton, Davis – conducting sans baton – and the MSO proved to be an operatic match made in heaven on this occasion, and it augurs well for the season ahead. Mention should also be made of Guest Principal Horn Stefan Bernhardsson whose suave lyricism and pin-point accuracy was yet another highlight of the evening. Skelton also features in the MSO’s Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius on March 8 and March 10 at Hamer Hall.
Glenn Riddle attended the MSO Season Opening Gala on Saturday March 3, 2018.