Zelman Symphony: End Games

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Published: 5th December, 2018

“End Games” was an appropriate title for Zelman Symphony’s final concert for 2018 even if it was intended to reflect the nature of the three works making up the program. Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 were all composed towards the end of their lives and stand as mature expressions of creative genius.

Undaunted by the challenges posed by these great works for an orchestra comprised largely of amateur musicians, both Artistic Director / Principal Conductor Rick Prakoff and Concertmaster Susan Pierotti saw the potential value they offered for the musicians and audiences alike. The opportunity to have Miriam Gordon-Stewart, a soprano renowned for her interpretation of music by Strauss and Wagner, join them for this concert made Strauss’s final composition an obvious choice.

Gordon-Stewart is possibly most familiar to Melbourne audiences for her dramatically and musically sensitive portrayal of Sieglinde in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of Die Walküre. Those same qualities were on display in this concert. Her vocal technique enables her to draw out long phrases and ride the surging crescendos with exciting rich tone. The opening of “Beim Schlafengehen” (While Going to Sleep) was simply gorgeous. Her diction was flawless and it was clear that her understanding of the subtleties of the text is profound. I doubt that any singer could have invested the final song, “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset) with more meaning. She sang without a score and projected a poised expressiveness that was completely at one with the music. In some respects it was a shame that text and translation were not provided with the program as it would have led to a greater appreciation of her command of vocal colour. On the other hand, she was able to convey the essence by using nuanced facial expression. It was also a pleasure simply to look at her striking red hair and glowing gown – a graceful echo of the Jugendstil of Strauss’s time.

One of the most exquisite solo violin passages in orchestral writing is found in “Beim Schlafengehen” and Susan Pierotti gave a graceful account of what Strauss describes as “the unfettered soul soaring in free flight to the magic circle of the night”. She was not alone in giving this miraculous score wings. Who would have thought the horns – that most treacherous of all instruments – could rise so well to the occasion? The horn solo in “September” was particularly impressive. Perhaps all orchestral members felt exceptionally inspired by this music and the singer. Rick Prakhoff had certainly gone to pains to ensure a suitably wide dynamic range in this and the symphonies.

When the orchestra entered the stage I could not help but notice – and applaud – the diverse nature of the musicians. There were older violinists and a percussionist who looked – at least from a distance – as though he might still be attending school. A diversity of ethnicity was also a welcome feature. Zelman Symphony is an inclusive orchestra. There were obvious discrepancies in the abilities of the musicians, but the overall level of competence produced a result that would have been satisfying to both the players and the audience.

The Haydn symphony was basically together and was distinguished by some lovely soft violin tone in the “Adagio” movement and some strong, if inconsistent violin playing. Despite the odd untidy moment, the Brahms symphony was a pleasure to listen to. The opening theme was played with the sort of fervor and singing tone that reminded the listener why Brahms has been so popular with audiences in the past that critics used to complain about how often it was programmed. I was with every player as they reveled in the sweeping melodies. The second movement was marked by some effective work from the bassoon and quietly atmospheric orchestral playing before the darker ending. A robust “Allegro giocoso” was followed by some strong wind chording and splendid work from the brass. The powerful buildup was underpinned by the seven (no less!) double basses.

Zelman Symphony deserves enthusiastic support for what it brings to the cultural life of Melbourne. An excellent array of soloists continue to be selected to play with a body of musicians which appears to be gaining in assurance under the baton of Rick Prakhoff. See you there next year as Ji Won Kim, David Griffiths (one of my very favourite musicians) and notable Canadian violinist Alexandre Da Costa join them in 2019.

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Heather Leviston attended Zelman Symphony’s “End Games” at Camberwell Grammar School on December 1, 2018.