European tour program to surely bring the house down at the Albert Hall.

Hamer Hall, Melbourne
July 3, 2014

This was all in all a very inspiring concert, featuring works that the orchestra is about to take on its European tour. Kicking off proceedings, Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture was perhaps the weakest performance of the night taking a while to settle, but the ensemble got tighter as the Orchestra warmed up. It featured some nice mellow moments from the horns and gleaming rotary-valve trumpets, but felt a bit sluggish and lacklustre overall.  

Robert Schumann wrote his Cello Concerto in 1850 shortly after moving to Dusseldorf. In just three and a half years’ time, he would don an overcoat only, walk into the Rhine and keep on walking. Rescued by fisherman, he was, at his own request, sent to an asylum where he died two years later. A couple of bars of orchestral introduction and we are already plunged into Schumann’s particular brand of melancholy. Norwegian cellist Truls Mork, who has been visiting Australia for about 20 years, had no trouble at all being heard over the reduced-size orchestra. With his reedy tone blossoming effortlessly, he gave us playing of great sincerity, near faultless intonation and lyrical sweetness. The strings were pared-down to suit Schumann’s orchestration, giving the performance a real ‘chamber music’ feel about it. There were some moments in this episodic one-movement work when the orchestral response could have been more nimble, but the long-lined melody in the slow movement was like a Schumann song, and the accompaniment in the finale was beautifully light and sprightly. 

Mork used a big, throbbing vibrato to bring out the weird, other-worldly moments in the cadenza, but it never seemed excessive. It was interesting to compare his playing with that of another regular, Steven Isserlis, who played the Dvorak Concerto in this hall last year. I remember having trouble hearing him clearly quite a lot of the time, but this was no problem on Thursday night. Both players also chose the same encore – Song of the Birds by Pablo Casals.
Post-interval, energy levels seemed to rise, and after an emphatic downbeat from Sir Andrew, the Orchestra’s performance of Strauss’s Don Juan was as good as you would hear anywhere in the world. With heroic horns, biting brass and a stunning oboe solo from Jeffrey Crellin, every mood and corner was beautifully realized and negotiated, and the ‘Hollywood’ moments, including fleeting violin solos from Dale Barltrop, registered fully. This was a really satisfying performance that brought a smile of appreciation for a job well done.

Before Percy Grainger’s mother Rose jumped out of an 18th floor window in New York, she left a suicide note to Percy saying ‘…your mad side has ruined us’. Maybe she could have cited the scenario (or the orchestration!) of his imaginary ballet The Warriors as evidence, because it contains the most bizarre combination of imagery. Grainger envisioned a sort of multi-cultural orgy celebrating warrior-culture, and featuring, amongst others,  ‘shining black Zulus…flaxen-haired Vikings…lithe, bright Amazons…squat Greenland women…negrito Fijians…graceful cannibal Polynesians’ – get the picture? As for the orchestration, it contains a minimum of three grand pianos, but has been performed with as many as 30, to which photographic evidence of one such performance in Chicago attests. Last night I counted eleven percussionists, with six mallet-players plonking away on a variety of marimbas, xylophones, glockenspiels etc. Add to that an off-stage brass section and a bass oboe, and it all makes for one great, glorious noise!

The Melbourne Symphony has a good pedigree when it comes to performing Grainger’s music from the 1960’s onwards, courtesy of conductor John Hopkins. They recorded The Warriors with him, and once again with Geoffrey Simon in 1989, a beautiful recording released through both ABC Classic and Cala records. But this live performance was something else, with everybody, especially Sir Andrew, seeming to enjoy the complete madness and hysteria of it all, complete with some proud Elgarian swagger in the final triumphant march. The extra Grainger encore of Mock Morris was fun, but maybe unnecessary, as anything would be an anti-climax after such a well-prepared and executed performance. If Davis and the Melbourne Symphony play as well as this on their forthcoming European tour, they will surely bring the house down at the Albert Hall and beyond.

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