SEASON FINALE GALA
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
We seem to be in gala mode at least three times a year these days, the MSO celebrating the year’s beginning (if a bit late after the real thing), its middle and its conclusion (if a tad early, what with a Christmas program, a handful of Messiahs, and four live soundtrack supports for The Empire Strikes Back screenings still to be played across the coming half- month). This concert probably gained its exceptional status due to the appearance of violinist Maxim Vengerov as guest artist, the visiting conductor a familiar pair of shoulders in Markus Stenz who was greeted with something like acclaim by an audience that seemed far more representative of the general population than is usual.
Stenz opened the celebration soberly enough with the Prelude and Transformation Music to Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. In fact, the last time this scene-change music appeared on an MSO program was in 2004 under Stenz during his final months as the body’s artistic director/chief conductor. Both works, linked seamlessly here, depend for success pretty much on balance and unanimity of chording, mainly because not much is taking place except a sequence of motifs – The Last Supper, The Grail, Faith, Cry of Anguish, Sacred Spear, Saviour’s Lament, Bell Theme – which are treated almost side by side as Wagner tiresomely confronts his uneasiness with Catholic impedimenta and a saga of pre-Dan Brown theological silliness
Most of the brass block entries came across without much distress, but then a good many are low-lying and in this music Wagner doesn’t call for any split-second, abrupt chords. Ditto the strings who take their time about things. Both the woodwind and woodwind-plus-brass utterances en masse were successful only half of the time and the final long sustained chords of the Prelude proper impressed as strained and not just from the top flute line.
Not much disturbed the slow processional which accompanies the scene change as Gurnemanz leads Parsifal into the hall of the Grail Temple. It’s never that convincing, even off the stage, as the composer attempts to convey the knights’ majesty and faithful stolidity which inevitably winds up sounding pompous, self-regarding and several spiritual light-years away from the mystery that is about to be celebrated. Stenz generated a compelling, full-bodied sound from his players, making much of the climaxes to the processional slow march. At its best, the transformation holds a glowing richness which sounded splendid in this ambience, more gripping than you can experience in your garden-variety opera house or theatre.
Vengerov gave the premiere of Qigang Chen’s violin concerto, La joie de la souffrance, in October 2017. It’s a co-commission by the Beijing Music Festival (where it was first played), the Orchestre national du Capitol de Toulouse, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (where it was a compulsory work for the six finalists), and the MSO. The score answers to a fair number of godparents and, as you’d anticipate with such a multipartite fostering, has several disparate bases to cover.
In sum, Chen’s concerto is old-fashioned. Very often during its progress, I was reminded of 19th century repertoire warhorses by Bruch and Saint-Saens; not the vocabulary so much, although at times that also seemed close, but the shape of the piece and its requirements of the soloist. Colourful shades and timbres it has in spades, from vivid percussion flashes to simple, sinuous melodies. The composer takes as his jumping-off mark a Chinese melody, Yangguan Sandie, which appears to be concerned with the parting of two friends, one of them leaving from the westernmost post of civilization for the unknown lands outside the Chinese empire.
In part, this fulcrum song uses part of a poem by Wang Wei, whose verses (the same as these?) were used by Mahler in the last movement of his Das Lied von der Erde – the interesting and controlled lines before the composer inserts his own, emotionally inflated conclusion to this movement that too many commentators hail as a transcendent masterpiece while some of us find it sentimentally bloated, out of kilter with the majority of the song’s lines, and not very consonant with the preceding five movements.
Chen opens his concerto with laid-back virtuosic flourishes before announcing his theme, and then offers variations on it. You hear other melodic matter, but not much. The move from rapid-moving fleetness to (in this case) pentatonic suggestiveness in elongated lyrical pages is what brought to mind exemplars like the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. Vengerov persevered through some deliberately winsome curvetting, followed by soulful melodies pronounced in the manner of a pop singer: start out your note blandly uninflected, then develop a vibrato with a crescendo and presto! you have expressiveness . . . except you don’t: you have a gimmick which wearies by repetition.
Not that Chen tired you out. His score was mobile, very intriguing for its scoring in faster segments, gifted with a rolling, solid tune (or two?) that he metamorphosed with skill, if not much rigour. Do you retain much of the composition some hours after one audition? Not really but, unlike so many products of these times, you couldn’t object to hearing the concerto again. It’s not a waste of time; expounded by this soloist and a willing-enough orchestra, it roused unexpected approbation from a receptive audience.
Thoughtfully, Vengerov and Stenz had organised an encore: Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. Those of us who belong to an older generation know this frivolity pretty well and it’s a piquant enough scrap of pseudo-Orientalism with some brilliant display passages for the soloist. I can’t explain the mind-set that decided to put it alongside Chen’s work; something like following Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with an Enescu Rumanian Rhapsody – the gestures are vaguely comparable, but the aesthetic imbalance is ludicrous.
Stravinsky and his secretary/amanuensis Robert Craft railed against interpretations of the composer’s The Rite of Spring ballet when they served chiefly as a vehicle for the showman conductor. As the decades have passed since the work’s 1913 premiere, orchestras have become inured to the score’s sound-production innovations and its rhythmic irregularities. Sonorous messes like the Introduction which once required decisive, if not finicky, indications from a conductor, especially in the four bars before the reversion to Tempo 1, can now be trusted to the individuals involved. Unless you’re a Boulez type who leaves nothing to chance by adopting a directorial style that resembles autocratic semaphore.
Stenz worked the score for maximum dramatic effect, interpolating himself as the central axis of the performance; for example, during the Les Augures pritaniers pages, he followed the predictable path of over-stressing the prevailing dynamic, but then put himself front-and-centre with whole-body spasms on each of the horn sforzando accents, followed by an attention-attracting over-lengthy general pause at rehearsal number 22 in my old Hawkes pocket score. Less choreography was involved in supervising the Jeu du rapt, but there’s more to do here than simply let things chug along their 2/4 path. You could have required more definition in the block chords that punctuate the final 16 bars of this section, interruptions that should come over like whip-cracks.
Years ago, I can remember being worried by Stenz’s slow pace for the opening 6 bars of the Rondes printanieres which led into a very heavy handling of the ensuing pages and a poco rit. in its final bar which was anything but poco. The same problem recurred on this night. On the other hand, the Jeux des cites rivales and Cortege du sage proved exciting to experience. The Part 1 conclusion, Danse de la terre, followed suit, even if you might have been happier with a sharper etching out of fabric details like the trumpet grupetti that begin two bars before rehearsal number 77 and which bite through the whirling melange until the final six bars when they double the upper woodwind in syncopations that reflect the Augures.
In the second half of the ballet, the approach began with a near-solicitude for the slow-moving quavers that surround the thematic fragment on which Stravinsky builds these mystical pages that irreverently bring to mind some of Holst’s outer planets. Indeed, one of the few defects in this part of the performance came in the conductor’s emphasis on sustained general pauses, as in the two that precede the Glorification de l’elue.
Here, Stenz showed great trust in his players, content with fairly skimpy gestures, more happy to dance the work along. The more jerky sections of the concluding Danse sacrale revealed a laudable synchronicity from the whole body despite the occasional splay coming through rather than a professional, emphatic unanimity of utterance. The final fermata at rehearsal number 180 again impressed/disconcerted by its length.
You couldn’t call it a rough reading of this ground-breaking masterpiece; it sat streets ahead of some distressingly uneven performances heard from this orchestra in the second half of the last century. What was missing appeared to be delicacy – which might seem strange when talking about this ultra-percussive work. But it seemed to be tellingly unsubtle in its placid moments, not helped by some articulation difficulties that came from Jack Schiller’s bassoon right from the first bars, the problem appearing to be due to an instrument key rather than his reeds. But you were left hanging many times, waiting for pointed solos to emerge from the susurrus; pinpricks from the piccolo trumpet, the D and E flat clarinet, Dale Barltrop’s solo violin – all were faint echoes of their proper selves.
But what do I know? The audience erupted into an applause avalanche at the end and Stenz seemed delighted, smiling happily while panting as though he’d just completed a taxing 400 metres sprint. If you like your Rite loud and punchy, this was a fine reading; for me, any live encounter with the work is worthwhile, but there are so many details, orchestration diamonds scattered throughout its fabric, that I was sorry not to encounter.