Appalachian Spring – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall, June 7th

This concert has been firmly on my calendar all year – a program of Copland, Stravinsky and the world premier of a new Piccolo Concerto by Australian composer Paul Stanhope felt like just about the perfect choice. It was great to see that I was not alone, though much of the rest of the audience seemed a little more excited about Firebird than the concerto (but then I’m a flautist!).

Appalachian Spring Suite, in its original form for thirteen instruments, was played sensitively and with careful attention to subtle variations of colour in the writing. Conductor Benjamin Northey seemed at times to be more a part of the chamber ensemble than strongly leading, giving the musicians room to play soloistically but at times resulting in a lack of clarity in the strings. Tempos were brisk, and the feeling of dance was never far away, though I wonder whether some of the audience were expecting the sweeping gestures of Aaron Copland’s fully orchestrated version of the suite.

Copland’s Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson is a work that springs less readily to mind in the context of an orchestral concert. Emma Matthews did a stunning job with what is clearly challenging music, singing with apparent ease and flexibility. Diction was clear throughout, and in the acoustics of Hamer Hall it was possible to enjoy the subtleties of Dickinson’s poems without needing to resort to the printed program. Copland’s orchestrations, however, felt a little inconsistent, at times supporting the singer beautifully and at others seeming a bit lack-luster. Dear March, come in and The Chariot stood out for their execution, with an almost dramatic intent on the part of both Matthews and the orchestra.

I can easily say that Stanhope’s new Piccolo Concerto was the highlight of my evening, taking its place easily alongside two giants of the twentieth century. The concerto was written for and premiered by Andrew Macleod (also the MSO principal piccolo), and was a fantastic showcase of exactly what the piccolo can achieve in terms of both expressive and dramatic power. The opening Hymn was stunning in its juxtaposition of colour, with the piccolo at times blending into the orchestral texture through doubling lower voices, at others standing out with ringing declamations. Macleod’s control of the instrument is stunning, with his ability to diminuendo to nothing on even the highest of notes particularly impressive. The second movement Scherzo: Wheels within Wheels worked at an incredible level of intricacy on the orchestral level, with a devilish-sounding solo part to match. If there was any irony at the “boutique” size of the solo instrument, then composer, soloist and conductor alike were at once laughing with the audience and utterly defying their expectations.

Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite rounded out the evening in a blaze of still more colour. Benjamin Northey, conducting from memory, egged the orchestra on to play at bright speeds with wonderful clarity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *