Almost enough people to fill Xavier College’s Eldon Hogan Performing Arts Centre made their way there on Saturday night, the attraction being Tchaikovsky. More particularly, the great Russian’s works as performed by the Zelman Symphony with piano soloist Hoang Pham.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.1 Winter Daydreams also lent its name to the concert, and was played after interval. If this was an unusual order of proceedings, it could only be because the Piano Concerto No.1 is extremely well known and instantly likeable. Having a popular soloist just cemented its importance in the program. But this was an audience bent on enjoying the evening – and they were not disappointed.
Mark Shiell conducted the significantly weighty ensemble, of mixed ages and carrying a reputation as one of Melbourne’s fine orchestras. Hoang in his white jacket had a commanding presence as the soloist, with good reason; this was the concerto he played to win the Young Performers Award in 2013. It took the entry of the strings and the piano to confirm the well-known theme of the first movement, and the soloist had no time to relax before the technical challenges came thick and fast. There is so much solo work to begin that it’s almost as if the cadenza comes at the beginning of this concerto! Hoang maintained an air of calm as he moved through the demands made of him, the piano sound dominant and clear even beside the loud, lush orchestral score.
Before long there was a series of broken chords for the pianist then a virtuosic interchange with the orchestra, the winds notable for their contribution. With the move to the Allegro section, conductor Sheill kept the dynamics balanced and steady so that transitions were smooth. Flautist Carol Gallia impressed, as she was to do many times on the night. The strings kept a “framework” around the piano’s showiness and combined to produce a glorious harmony. Even when playing with a single hand, Hoang matched the orchestra in importance, the conductor keeping a balance that also disguised some imperfections in this first section of the concerto.
The Andantino reminded the audience why this concerto is so loved. Technical challenge is one thing, opportunity for resonance and lyricism is another. The second movement began with a gentle pizzicato for strings then the flute articulated the theme. Hoang managed to express deep feeling while keeping a very steady tempo and sharing the limelight with the cello and then the oboe. All too soon this loved part of the concerto gave way to the prestissimo. With brilliant support from the orchestra, and later in a cadenza, Hoang executed trills in both hands and other technical accomplishments before the movement was brought to a gentle close.
Finally the third movement and another familiar theme. The orchestra’s short lead-in was true to the instruction to play “with fire”. There soon followed more of the same: lots of showy sounds, compelling harmony and all, of course, at speed. Hoang had never looked more comfortable as he dashed off octaves, scales and all the other challenges of this glorious concerto. Shiell kept his enthusiastic players together, so that it seemed like a brilliant race to the finish.
After sustained applause, Hoang concentrated on the more lyrical side of his playing with his encores, two Nocturnes by Chopin. This was a good choice as the pianist is well suited to this composer; and he could expand on the sensitive playing he had demonstrated in the concerto.
The second work on the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.1. It is not as well known as the concerto, and indeed is more like program music than a symphony on the scale of some others by this composer, notably the Fifth.
However this probably put it more comfortably into the scope of the performers on this occasion. The subtle beginning owed much to the violins with the lower strings mirroring the pattern. Horns and winds added warmth, despite some difficulties momentarily. (The acoustics in the hall are very good but a little sharp and not forgiving of any mistakes!) However, the conductor did well to get a “big orchestra” sound from the Zelman Symphony. The exploratory nature of the melody was not immediately charming but the flute again was worthy of notice.
Despite the bleak title, the second movement Land of Desolation had appealing harmonies to begin. The oboe as well as the flute was worth notice. It was up to the strings to bring some sweetness back as the movement ended and winds provided a late “comment”. The third movement Scherzo provided perhaps the best playing so far in this work. Zelman showed itself capable of strong and varying dynamics and a sudden change of pace and rhythm (at one point, swaying). Timpani and brass had to wait for their moment to shine.
Finally the winds introduced the “lugubrious” quality of the fourth movement and the cellos further expressed this mood. After some time the trumpets heralded a change of pace. The fugue as it first appeared was not entirely well executed but the next section moved easily and rhythmically. As the symphony progressed Zelman demonstrated a strength working together as an ensemble, largely thanks to the conductor who drew the strands together.
Shiell did a great job with the big finish to the symphony, and it was good to see that the brass players justified their long wait to be in the spotlight!
On reflection it seemed the orchestra had given its best effort to the concerto. Smaller orchestras do not enjoy the luxury of long rehearsals as professional ensembles do, and difficult choices have to be made. However, on arriving home I encountered some neighbours in the car park and asked where they’d been.
“To a lovely concert of Tchaikovsky’s music”, was the enthusiastic response. That really did say it all.
The picture is of conductor Mark Shiell.
Hoang Pham gives a solo recital of Chopin on March 13.