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.

Shadows – Melbourne Symphony Orchesta/Metropolis New Music Festival

Melbourne Recital Centre, April 20th

A grand finale to Melbourne’s Metropolis New Music Festival, Shadows showed off the wealth of music that comes under the festival banner. It also made me wish that I’d had time to go to a few more of the numerous other concerts across the festival’s two weeks.

British composer and conductor Thomas Adès both programmed and conducted the concert, showing himself to be both versatile and daring in his approach to new music.  Adès’s works are almost approaching mainstream in both his native England and overseas. While maybe not so well-known to Australian audiences, the opportunity to hear these works conducted by the composer was not to be missed. The program was tantalising in its variety, juxtaposing the more conventional orchestral forces with solo cello and large chamber configurations, and Adès was totally at home on the podium.

Niccolo Castigliano’s Inverno In-ver was an intriguing study in the the variety one can achieve with a limited soundscape. In this case, the limiting factor was pitch – all eleven movements were concerned with the high and tinkly. The variety of sounds produced (if occasionally a little taxing on the ears) was mesmerising, a wonderful study in colour and orchestral texture. Each movement felt exactly right in its length and scope, and the work left the impression of having been treated to an exquisite tasting-platter of sound.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Kai for solo cello and ensemble dragged the audience out of this dream-like state into a harsher reality. The cello was constantly pitted against the full force of the ensemble (including bass guitar and drum kit), forcing soloist Steven Isserlis to respond with a dramatic and occasionally forced musical vocabulary. Isserlis executed the solo part with incredible sincerity and flawless technique, though the piece as a whole might have benefited from a little more contrast in colour and instrumentation.

Isserlis’s solo performance that followed the interval was breathtaking in a totally different way. Four movements of Gygory Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages for solo cello, the miniatures were delicious in their economy of gesture and idea. Isserlis’s performance captured this beautifully, demanding absolute attention of the audience as he captured even the most delicate of gestures. It was a pity that this segment of the concert seemed to be over too quickly – placed directly after the interval it took the audience the first few of these short movements to settle down and stop rustling! I could quite happily have listened to the whole work; the performance was one of the rare moments where it felt like soloist and work were perfectly matched.

While this may have been my high point of the concert, I was still suitably impressed with what followed. One of the winners of this year’s Cybec composition competition, Lachlan Skipworth showed that the younger generation of Australian composers are continuing to produce new and interesting works. His piece Afterglow, while not really resembling the piece described in the program note, was nevertheless refined and a pleasure to listen to. Framing a central piccolo solo (played by Andrew Macleod with his usual precision), the work showed an economy of gesture and interesting attention to the details of colour.

Adès, having shown the same enthusiasm for every piece on the evening’s program, finished the concert with three dances from his first opera Powder Your Face. Lively and catchy as one can be while still staying in the new music vein, the dances rounded out a spectacular evening (and I am told festival), and were certainly a crowd-please. For me – I’ll certainly give the opera a listen very soon, but failed to be quite as revved up by the dances as I thought I would be. Maybe, after reading the opera synopsis in the program, I wanted a little more drama. But then new music never intends to please universally, the challenge to confront the unknown is far more important.

Bring on Metropolis 2014, next time I will make sure to attend more!

Mozart’s Requiem – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

8th March, Hamer Hall, Melbourne

This was certainly a concert of grand ambitions, marrying Mozart’s epic Requiem mass with Bartok’s masterpiece, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Though not immediately clear, it is possible to find common ground between these pieces; both deal with the juxtaposition of forces as an integral part of their sound palette. They tread a similar path in their exploration of a dark, dramatic soundscape, though musical language is of course incredibly varied. Not so with the opening piece – Wagner’s Prelude to the Mastersingers of Nuremberg – which felt rather out of place on the program despite beautifully rich sonorities from the brass.

Both in the Bartok and the Mozart, the conductor and orchestra seemed to take a little while to get into their stride. The opening Andante tranquillo of the Bartok, in particular, seemed rather angular and a little bereft of melodic direction. However, this was more than made up for as the piece progressed, with brisker movements displaying cheekily discursive playing from the strings. Edward Gardner demanded a wonderful range of dynamics, and both he and the orchestra fully embraced Bartok’s stereophonic vision. The wonderful thing about this music is an exploration of colour, and this was always the central focus. The third, Adagio movement was stunningly eerie, and on more that one occasion I found myself amazed at the sounds Bartok and Gardner achieved by the combination of instrumental timbres. Gardner’s verbal introduction to this piece was great – informative and passionate. I really hope that it encouraged some less-experienced listeners to really give Bartok’s music a go!

For most of the audience, of course, the Requiem was the big event (I have to admit, it was for the Bartok that this concert was so prominently marked in my diary), and the orchestra didn’t disappoint. Though taking the first few movements to really settle into a feeling of absolute cohesion of intention, both choir and orchestra performed with a sense of drama and gusto. Tempos seemed on the brisk side, but this only seemed to add to the urgency and foreboding in the choral movements. Soloists Elena Xanthoudakis, Sally-Anne Russell, Andrew Staples and Matthew Rose were many not quite as spectacular as I would have liked on their own, but more than made up for the when singing as a quartet. Particularly impressive were the Recordare and Benedictus, where the blend of voices was stunning.

Ian Bostridge Sings Mozart and Schubert – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Friday 7th December

Despite my reservations about a program consisting mostly of Mozart in what has to be described as a very large concert hall, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration with British tenor Ian Bostridge and conductor Bernard Labadie was highly enjoyable. Labadie’s reputation is for conducting Baroque and Classical repertoire, and it is because of this that the program had such a strong focus on the works of Mozart.

The selection of five Schubert songs was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Bostridge appeared totally at ease with the music, exploring the intricacies of colour and melody in Schubert’s writing. The orchestral accompaniment – arranged by Webern – augmented the possibilities of vocal shading while still maintaining the intimacy of piano writing. Though at moments the proximity of a chamber music venue would have better allowed for Bostridge’s subtleties of colour, the Hamer Hall acoustics delivered superbly, and a pleasing balance of instruments and voice seemed effortless on the part of the performers. The brooding Ihr Bild (Her Image) was particularly striking, and Bostridge’s upper register in these songs was outstanding.

The excerpts from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo which preceded the interval, while equally stunning technically,  felt somewhat out of place in the overall arc of the concert. Bostridge executed the arias with passion, ringing Italian, and particularly impressive cadenzas. However, the flow of this segment was unconvincing, with the music seeming to loose rather than gain momentum heading into the interval.

Framing the vocal works, Mozart’s symphonies no. 31 (Paris) and the famous no. 40 were played with buoyancy and delicacy. The opening movements of both works erred on the side of dainty when they could maybe have used a little more umph. It was clear that Bernard Labadie’s musical focus was with the minute gestures rather than the greater arc of the music, which gave the second movement of the Paris symphony in particular a dazzling clarity of sound and musical contour. Lower voices carried beautifully, with even the gentlest of cello pizzicatos clearly audible. It was maybe a little surprising, then, that the woodwind were not more present in the mixture, and that inner-voice melodies in the concluding symphony were occasionally unclear. Both works gained momentum heading into the final movements, with Labadie demanding crisp articulation and bubbling energy.

A concert on the light side thematically perhaps, but nevertheless performed with flair and sparkle.

A Spectacular Return – Act 1 – Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Friday 10th August

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s return to their newly refurbished home at Hamer Hall was grand to say the least. With a packed house and a sense of celebration, the opening night concert showcased the hall and its new acoustics through a diversity of music and creative ideas.

Rather unusual though it is for an orchestral concert to begin with a solo work, let alone one by a living Australian composer, Ross Edwards Water Spirit Song for solo cello was indeed an inspired choice to highlight Hamer Hall’s stunning acoustics. David Berlin played with sensitivity and flair, though possibly a little erratically at times, and each detail of the cello’s meandering line was clearly audible.

Thomas Ades’s Polaris which followed tested the hall at the other end of the sound spectrum, comprising a full orchestra with brass positioned strategically around the balconies. The effect was stunning, as orchestra and hall alike coped effortlessly with the timberal variety of this ambitious work. Conductor Markus Stenz’s understanding of Ades and his music was clear, and he demanded energy of the orchestra throughout. While the visuals created by video artist Tal Rosner were beautiful in their own right, they were a little superfluous to the music on such an occasion, adding an additional level of clutter when none was needed.

Finally, Gustav Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 3, together with mezzo-soprano Petra Lang, solo posthorn and two choirs, took its place as showpiece of the evening. This is a stunning work, but also one on a colossal scale, and may have pushed the concert out a little too far for some audience members. Nevertheless, Mahler does save his most poignant until the end. While the opening movement would indeed be hard to surpass in terms of majesty and length, the fourth and fifth movements with choir and solo voice were at once stunningly dramatic and perfectly blended. The sixth and final movement, which could easily have dragged, instead lifted to a new level, with Stenz and the orchestra thoughtfully caressing each and every note.