MSO: Season Opening Gala

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Published: 19th March, 2019
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On a balmy Saturday night, amidst the cacophony of nearby F1 celebrations, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented their Season Opening Gala to an appreciative, near-capacity Hamer Hall audience. But what is it that indeed makes a Gala? Is it the personnel, the program, or perhaps the unique sense of occasion? On Saturday night it was all three.

2019 sees Sir Andrew Davis in his final year as Chief Conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and it is fair to say that his tenure has left not only an indelible imprint on our beloved MSO but equally on the cultural landscape of our fair city. Saturday’s Gala marked the overture of Sir Andrew’s farewell season before he assumes the title of Conductor Laureate and it is to be hoped that there will be return visits for many years to come.

Guest soloist on this occasion was China’s leading violinist and MSO’s 2019 Soloist-in-Residence, the stellar Lu Siqing, playing the 300-year-young ‘Miss Crespi’ Stradivarius, on loan from Chinese-Australian philanthropist and MSO benefactor Mr David Li.

Finally, in a program that might otherwise have been called Great Romantics, the MSO presented two draw-card works with which they toured China in 2018: Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto (Lu had similarly been guest soloist on the China tour) and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. This afforded those at Hamer Hall the opportunity to hear masterful interpretations from respective masters of their craft – self-evidently the case with both Davis and Lu. But in an age of FIFO conductors and the attendant economic imperatives that do not afford modern music organisations the luxury of more than a tiny clutch of rehearsals (some of London’s major orchestras often give performances prepared on a single rehearsal), on this occasion we had the all-too-rare privilege of hearing interpretations of musical masterworks that had had time to gestate and fully ripen, with all the MSO’s gifted bevy of principals and section leaders not only in attendance, but switched on and giving their all in the presence of a much-loved and esteemed conductor, as well as an inspiring, and engaging virtuoso (in the best sense of the word) guest soloist.

The concert opened with the Polovtsian Dances from Act 2 of Russian composer/chemist/doctor Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Conducting as is his wont sans baton, Sir Andrew led a taut, energetic reading of this colorfully orchestrated work, one that was notable for the several distinguished woodwind solos as well as for the tambourine-led Janissary-inspired percussion section. After an initial hesitant entry from the sopranos, the MSO Chorus sang admirably, although one did intermittently wish for greater presence from the well-tutored chorus.

Then came that most quintessentially Romantic of violin concertos: Bruch’s No 1 in G minor – yet another of the great concertos that were closely associated with the nineteenth century Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. Bruch may unfairly be known as a one-hit wonder but, even if it were true, who wouldn’t give their right bowing arm to have composed this unqualified masterpiece? Lu proved to be the perfect protagonist here. An undemonstrative violinist who stands and delivers where it most counts, Lu gave an authoritative, impassioned account, one as much noteworthy for its opening movement’s ardent lyricism as for the delicately nuanced burgundy tone that distinguished the central Adagio. Lu’s unerring sense of pitch served him well in the double-stop fireworks that pervade the gypsy-inspired Finale. This was dazzling playing from a musician of the first rank. Throughout the MSO provided sympathetic, discreet accompaniment that was equally musically well-directed.

After the razzle-dazzle pyrotechnics of the first half, came a work that Sir Andrew rightly identified in his introductory remarks as epitomising both desolation and despair. Notwithstanding all the recent research that argues otherwise, it is hard for modern audiences not to regard Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony with some sense of biographical retrospection. Unexpectedly, Piotr Ilyich was to die some days after conducting the not-entirely successful St Petersburg 1893 premiere. However the symphony quickly assumed a renown that has ensured its permanent and rightful place in the Western musical canon.

Sir Andrew also forewarned the audience about clapping after the triumphant conclusion of the third movement, a moment that all too often elicits decisively enthusiastic, spontaneous applause. In general, I am not against clapping between movements of large-scale works; both classical musicians and classical audiences can be too precious in admonishing fellow concert-goers who instinctively unleash their genuine appreciation of wonderful performances of first and other movements of symphonies or concertos. However, Tchaikovsky 6 is an exception and Sir Andrew was absolutely right to make his plea on this occasion – on all levels, for this was a reading that deserved rapt attention from go to whoa.

The opening of the first movement featured haunting woodwind solos, gloriously velvet-toned strings, and mellifluously euphonious brass. Expansive melodies and blazing brass fanfares characterised the more tempestuous development section. Had a symphonic movement ever explored such extremes of dynamic ranges before? Then ensued the spectral presence of the second movement that is a not-quite waltz with its unsettling quintuple metre, followed by the tarantella cum march third movement that feels like a celebratory finale, but isn’t. Then follows some of the most anguished music one is ever likely to hear in the emotionally draining fourth movement. Overall, this was a well-honed reading, lovingly nurtured over time, fully meriting the reverential silence that greeted its enervating conclusion.

It should be mentioned that the evening commenced with a minute’s silence to remember the tragic loss of life in the recent Christchurch terrorist attack. Poignant reminders of the fragility of mankind’s existence, both Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 and Mahler’s Tenth, which features in the MSO’s next outing, attest to this.

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Glenn Riddle attended the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Season Opening Gala, at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on March 16, 2019.