It has been an especially gratifying week in Melbourne for devotees of the female voice. Sopranos Siobhan Stagg, Jessica Pratt and Emma Matthews and mezzosoprano Caitlin Hulcup have made their mark as international singers of the highest calibre, so it has been a special treat to hear them on their home turf, whether singing Strauss songs, Bellini arias or in a work specifically designed to showcase their acting and bel canto talents. All four are consummate artistic communicators.
The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra displayed considerable flexibility and stamina as they undertook two very different programs on successive evenings. Before an extraordinary performance of Victorian Opera’s semi-staged production of Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues, featuring a dazzling display of bel canto brilliance at Hamer Hall, the orchestra presented a program comprising Richard Mills’ Impromptu, after Schubert, six Orchestral Songs by Richard Strauss and Schubert’s Symphony No 9, Great, in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
A significant element linking these two programs was Richard Mills, as composer in the first concert and conductor in the second. Mills has had a long association with the TSO, notably as a former director of their Australian Music Program. Over the years the TSO has premiered several of his works and recorded works by other Australian composers under his baton. This year marks the TSO’s 70th anniversary, so these concerts seemed a fitting way to mark the occasion with Impromptu, after Schubert, an ideal work to launch the celebrations.
Beginning and ending with an off-stage piano quietly playing fragments from Schubert’s songs, Ariette and Auf dem Wasser zu singen, Mills evokes a past that continues to echo through the centuries. Piano, tympani and harp create a pang of melancholy, a timeless nostalgic yearning that reaches into some essence of the human spirit. His referencing of other Schubert works and his use of some of Schubert’s trademark compositional devices in the full orchestra’s music with its chromatic falls and surging dynamic ebb and flow are emotionally gripping. The haunting conclusion as the piano once again plays over a steady drumming heartbeat is a gentle leave-taking. Johannes Fritzsch conducted his predecessor’s work with authority and attention to detail and Richard Mills beamed approval as he too took a bow at the end.
Before the affirmation of the symphony Siobhan Stagg sang what many members of the audience had specifically come to hear. It was a privilege to hear these six beautiful Strauss songs sung with such musicality, sensitivity and radiance. Opening with one of his most famous songs,Zueignung, she rode above the orchestra with an expansive “heilig” and concluded with a joyous “Habe Dank!” An effortless, glowing Säusle, liebe Myrte! followed. The sweet violin solo that introduces Morgen! might have benefited from a more relaxed approach, but that is a matter of taste; the final phrases were beautifully drawn out in a gentle hush of vocal line, violin and harp. It was Siobhan Stagg at her exquisite best. The rapturous crescendo of the final song, Cäcilie, rode on what appeared to be an unlimited supply of breath. Throughout, her phrasing and use of vocal colour reflected complete understanding of and sympathy with the text.
A spirited reading of the symphony reminded the listener why it has been dubbed Great. There was no lack of energy or volume from the 47-piece ensemble, which is probably as big an orchestra as is comfortable to hear in the resonant acoustic of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. There was considerably beauty and subtlety in some of the playing, especially from the flute,and pleasing warmth from the cellos. The concert appeared to have attracted new audience members since there was applause whenever there was a pause between movements. It might have defied convention, but an enthusiastic audience is always heartening and a welcome tribute to great music played well.