SEASON OPENING GALA
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Saturday March 16
Well, not me, exactly, but possibly the ABC when it controlled the upper echelons of serious music in this country. I can’t have been the only member of Saturday night;’s audience who suffered from a profound sense of deja-vu. Here was an old-fashioned Red Series program, the kind of fare that many of us grew up on and which is trotted out regularly as a reassurance that, while you might have to endure some puzzling music at odd spots during the year, at the core of things you can rely on tried-and-true practice. Next week, Sir Andrew Davis presents a lecture-concert dealing with Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 – a near-novel exercise, tried on last year, and reminiscent of Bernstein’s efforts to educate a public even more reactionary than Australia. But the MSO’s last submission for March is the old overture – (Egmont) – concerto (Mozart 27) – symphony (Sibelius 1) set-up . . . more lasting than bronze, indeed.
Nevertheless, the well-worn procedure can produce excellent results and Saturday night brought us a polished and committed reading of Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto No. 1 from Lu Siqing, one where the soloist and orchestra under Davis stayed on point throughout. Certainly, the score is a familiar one to all concerned and the MSO is familiar with this excellent violinist’s work after his tour of China with the ensemble last year. and following his accession to the role of MSO Soloist in Residence for 2019.
Siqing gave a brooding glamour to the work’s initial recitatives before settling into the Vorspiel‘s main material where he balanced the role’s requirements for rapid figuration with hefty chord-work, all the while delivering Bruch’s expressive lyricism without mawkishness. This prelude gives the orchestra few chances to shine until just before the reclamation of its opening solo flourishes but Davis kept the MSO in near-ideal synchronicity with this soloist, who distinguished himself with an arresting series of upward moving trills that conclude the first treatment of the movement’s second subject.
Even better came in the Adagio where, apart from two 8-bar breaks, the soloist is front-and-centre all the time. Here also, Siqing let his line sing without emotional impediments and no interpolated cleverness, ably assisted by a respectful string section background. He is a model musician for this deeply Romantic school because of his technical security, of course, but also for the ability he has of giving the music prime position, so that his pyrotechnics during the Finale impressed more for their transfixing clarity of sound than as instances of flamboyant personality.
As an encore, we heard an unaccompanied version that seemed to lack a segment or two of Monti’s Csardas, which met with tremendous acclaim
As well as an exemplary concerto, the MSO later put up a brave showing in Tchaikovsky’s B minor Symphony No. 6, a score which it invariably carries off with eloquence of address, balanced ensemble and persuasive conviction. Most of the wind chording came across cleanly, the brass well-harnessed in the odd-numbered movements and the strings sounding at their best with a finely honed responsiveness, the first violins (who were pretty close to in my face) working as one, apart from a single over-enthusiastic attack moment from leader Dale Barltrop.
Each conductor shows individuality of interpretation most clearly when coping with the finale’s Adagio lamentoso. Davis set a firm pace, one that looked forward rather than yielding to the lugubrious. This more-mobile-than-expected approach did the score no disservice; in fact, the great climactic surges impressed more as coherent argument conclusions than as the fits of temper that many another interpreter hurls at you. A fine interpretation concluded in the last Andante giusto bars of the work which lived up to the tempo direction and faded to a quadruple-piano silence with remarkable self-effacement from the divisi cellos and basses: a passage of grave accomplishment after the symphony’s preceding restlessness.
As an overture, Davis brought in the MSO Chorus for a romp through Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, a work which you can easily go your whole life without encountering. This collection was once a staple of Red Series programs, although often without any singing involved, and for many of us represented a significant facet of the Kuchka’s operations, in particular its mixture of semi-Oriental and Russian characteristics – or what we thought those geographical-cultural terms represented.
The extracts are still a pleasure to hear, even if the associations with the Davis/Lederer/Wright/Forrest musical Kismet are inescapable to those of us coming of age in the 1950s. Davis set an unusually slow pace for the Chorus of Slavewomen which obviously took the female MSO Chorus members by surprise as they set off on their own path at a faster tempo. As they do, matters settled quickly into shared synchronicity and the rest of the work’s constituents followed without much cause for alarm.
Not that this is a difficult work to handle, although the faster dances find the orchestra busy, especially the woodwind and in particular the clarinets. Yet it does need a firm control of the ferment, particularly when Khan Konchak’s name is bandied about by the singers. Considering their numbers, the sopranos and altos could have made a stronger contribution in the later stages when in combination with the male chorus members. But the sung part of the work remained audible – which is more than I can say for other performances I’ve experienced at opposite ends of the time spectrum from Ansermet and Gergiev, during both of which you might have wondered why the chorus bothered to show up.
So, thanks to the MSO administration for dusting off this relic, although the program notes refer to a 2014 performance under Diego Matheuz. Perhaps we can have a real blast from the past with Borodin’s just-as-Romantic view of the East, In the Steppes of Central Asia. Or we could go one better with Rimsky’s Russian Festival Overture. Considering Siqing’s encore, how about Poet and Peasant? Light Cavalry, anyone?
Still, there’s no merit – or even benefit – in railing against the old-fashioned. As a welcome counterweight, the MSO’s April brings us the first of two outstandingly original Metropolis programs, Verdi’s Requiem, and a night where Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto brushes shoulders with Paul Dean’s new work in the same format. Or you could forget all about this and watch the MSO provide a live soundtrack to Ghostbusters.