It may have been the curiosity value of the program, or maybe it was the nearly 50 years that have passed since the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last made landfall in New York. Either way this Carnegie Hall concert at the tail end of the MSO’s North American tour appeared pretty much sold out. In the event, a subset of less than half the orchestra – I counted around 35 players – with concertmaster Dale Barltrop directing impressively from the violin, easily held the attention of an audience, which included Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull as well as former Arts Minister, now Ambassador to the USA, Mitch Fifield.

A pair of contemporary Australian works were the meat in the sandwich of an oddly unbalanced evening – the second half was over in less than 30 mins. The concert was bookended with a pair of early Romantic works: Rossini’s fizzing overture to L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) and Schubert’s charming, but rarely played (at least, rarely played live) Third Symphony. The Rossini received a spirited account despite some early pianissimos being disrupted by a pair of clumping latecomers. Barltrop took it at an exciting lick with bright, sparkling textures, crisply articulated, and with some lively wind solos from Andrew Macleod on piccolo, Philip Arkinstall on clarinet and Jack Schiller on bassoon. John Arcaro made much of Rossini’s exotic percussion in the form of a Turkish crescent (sometimes known as a “Jingling Johnny”). It was a prime example of why the composer was nicknamed Signor Crescendo, and got matters off to a fine start.

Dale Barltrop leads the MSO at Carnegie Hall

The Schubert at the other end was a fine mix of weighty and light as a feather. It’s an unfashionable work, one that shows Schubert wedged between the ghost of Haydn and the daunting spectre of Beethoven, but if the piece feels short of an overarching vision, it’s best to remember that the composer was still a callow youth of 18. Barltrop wisely opted to be swift on his feet again and, despite a few squeaky corners, the work came to life with plenty of charm. The perky Allegretto, which does duty as slow movement, reveals Schubert as very much his own man, albeit at this stage one with a slight Victorian sensibility. The MSO kept things very much on the boil, relishing the rustic stamp of the Menuetto with its cheesy central waltz. Solo oboe (Jeffrey Crellin) and bassoon proved wonderfully mismatched dance partners, before the tarantella-cum-Mendelssohnian finale swept all before it.

It was the contemporary Australian works that were the draw-cards, a pair of fine examples of an accessible yet sophisticated vein that runs through many works of the last decade or so. Iain Grandage’s All the World’s a Stage is an attractive modern tone poem, a commission intended as a gift from philanthropist Mary Davidson to her husband Frederick in celebration of 50 years of marriage. A seven-movement piece, it reflects the famous seven ages of man speech delivered by the gloomy Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Glum though it isn’t. An energetic work for string orchestra, it opens with demonstrative gestures, its early phrases bursting with the unsettling glissandi that feature throughout its ensuing span. The MSO string tone was rich and polished, the ensemble clearly relishing Grandage’s scene-painting as the music progresses from “mewling and puking” infants in their cradles, through jaunty schoolboys, swooning lovers, and spirited soldiers, and all the way through to a haunting “sans everything” conclusion that fades out on challenging high harmonics.

Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy is a reworking for full string orchestra of his Third String Quartet (1994), the original so called because it was commissioned by the London-based Smith Quartet. Full of challenging effects, the work passes certain ideas back and forth across the orchestra with occasional lyrical moments providing points of satisfying consolidation. Stuttering themes on high strings, racing pizzicati, and stamping passages on cellos and basses bring Prokofiev and Bartók to mind, but Vine is no pale imitation, especially given the highly individual way he creates solo moments for violin (Barltrop), viola (Christopher Moore) and cello (David Berlin), each of whom made the most of their opportunities while maintaining the tightness of ensemble and cast-iron technique that the composer demands at all times. If that sounds a little cerebral – and it probably looks that way on paper – the effect is far from elusive with plenty of sweet, singing music that is complex yet emotionally rewarding. The MSO’s virtuoso string playing culminated in a maelstrom of skirling violins that signed off with a final cinematic flourish.

The concert represented the end of a notable 31-year career for Principal Double bass Steve Reeves. The dedication to him of a powerfully directed account of Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry made for a fine send-off to all concerned.