The Bard was wonderfully well represented by the recent Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Prom program : from the soft rapid flutterings of fairy wings in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the powerful interpretation of Ophelia’s madness given by soprano Emma Matthews. As conductor Brad Cohen commented, the evening could have been titled “Shakespeare Romantics”.
Before the first piece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, host, Eddie Perfect, suggested that it was no wonder a young Mendelssohn wrote this piece (“Who better to set a tale of love, sexuality and confusion than a horny 17 year-old?”) Solid woodwinds under the guidance of Cohen opened the piece with the four haunting chords which seem to unlock the magic world. The soft scurrying of the fairy wings in the minor key was captured well with the entrance of the violins which seemed to get even softer later on. All sections of the MSO played with appropriate majesty, gusto or the lyrical longing of lovers, even capturing the braying “haw-haw” in the strings. (Interestingly, this piece was originally for two pianos and performed by Mendelssohn and his sister.)
Cohen’s deep understanding of romanticism as an art to best express the emotions, to extend beyond the bounds of normalcy and rationalism was further developed in the excerpts from Romeo and Juliet. He consistently worked at bringing out the expressive power of all section of the orchestra, with wonderful work from the winds, moving crescendos starting in the cellos and double basses, and sweeping up to the violins and a single haunting oboe. “Symphonie dramatique” is certainly a suitable description for the first excerpt, even with its slightly slower tempo. In the later sections it was easy to imagine the sadness of Romeo, the tranquil night of a Capulet garden and the longing of the love scene. All were vividly described by various sections of the orchestras, particularly with violas and cellos, the clarinets, oboe and the cor anglais. Whilst some of the audience would have liked to have the work performed as a whole with soloists and choirs, the piece had a shape and emotional draw which received great applause.
One of the benefits of the Prom is the the interview with the conductor. Cohen gave us his interpretation of the romantic notion ‘sublime’ in its earlier sense of the terrifying, unknown dangerous spaces. It was also of contrasts – danger and safety, natural and faery world. Whilst he does not see himself as a “romantic” Cohen loves emotion which may explain his prolific work in opera.
The modern meaning of sublime could be used for the the glorious singing of Emma Matthews who gave vibrant life to the program’s original title “A Tribute to Nellie Melba”. This was forecast with the enormous red floral tributes on the stage. She sang the Jewel Song from Gonoud’s Faust with an engaging innocence, but which was also carried the more sinister aspect of Marguerite succumbing to vanity. Matthews was in great form, her voice conveying surprise and excitement. Her strong, flexible tone combined with her formidable technique to bring out both the lyric quality and the virtuosity needed; her voice sparkled as much as the gems.
Matthews then held the audience enthralled with the Mad Scene from Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet. The minute the music began her face took on the confusion of a rejected lover and sense of suicidal despair. It was her acting of the various emotions as well as her voice that swept the audience away. It began with a soft, sad recitative and arioso which later became torment yet relief in the safety of madness. Her phrasing and vocal colour were so impressive that it worked as piece of theatre rather than a concert performance. Her coloratura technique, her top register and acting were so thrilling that there was no hint that this was a showcase. Neither the orchestra, conductor, nor singer slipped into the sentimental in a vivid, exciting and thoroughly moving performance.
Matthews ended with a British folksong Now touch the air softly arranged by Calvin Bowman who had a given a wonderfully varied organ recital before the main concert.
Melbourne is privileged to have an orchestra where the fullness of sound and the quality of the musicians is world standard. This concert combined that with the brilliance of a top coloratura, a worthy successor to Melba.
Peter Williams reviewed the MSO concert at the Melbourne Town Hall on September 26.