With a federal election in the offing, it is all too easy to make comparisons between a political party’s campaign launch and a ‘season opening gala’ such as this one for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Both are held a fair while after relevant activities have commenced, both provide for a gathering of faithful supporters, and both (you would expect) provide an opportunity for the delivering of a rousing manifesto of the organisation’s values and future agenda.

Lu Siqing, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Season Opening GalaMelbourne Symphony Orchestra Soloist in Residence Lu Siqing

While galas are a relatively recent addition to the orchestral marketeer’s box of tricks, they seem now to have become mandatory. Last year the orchestra marked the beginning, middle and end of its season with galas. This year there is another slated for July.

This gala certainly brought in the faithful, who gave a rousing reception to the music and musicians. Like all good launches, the audience was addressed by a party elder, in this case MSO board chairman, Michael Ullmer AO. After a minute’s silence for the victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack, Ullmer went on to note that this formal opening to the season had been preceded by much activity on the part of the orchestra, and then assured us there was much more to come, if only in general terms. Then came a plea for money, a short video presentation urging us to donate to the orchestra – anything from $10 to $1 million. (As the saying goes, there’s no harm in asking.)

Formalities out of the way, we came to the music. The program – Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony struck me as something straight out of the ABC Red Series of my childhood or before. (For younger readers, the Red Series was the main concert series of the then-ABC orchestras for many years.) Not only did the choice of repertoire seem backward looking, but the lion’s share of the program was a replay of items from the orchestra’s China tour in May last year. (The Bruch and the Tchaikovsky were part of the tour program and the soloist in the Bruch, Lu Siqing, was also the soloist on the tour.) Lu is now the orchestra’s Soloist in Residence for 2019.

Given the familiarity of the orchestra with the repertoire, it was no surprise to find them in excellent form. Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances provided an appropriately festive opening, with players providing suitably robust tuttis and nicely moulded woodwind solos along the way. A slight difference of opinion over tempo at the start of the ‘Gliding Dance of the Maidens’ caused the chorus sopranos momentary grief, from which they recovered well. Otherwise the chorus contributed convincingly to the overall folkloric mood.

Bruch’s first and most famous violin concerto has gained something of a reputation as a warhorse. It is to Lu Siqing’s credit that he gave the work sufficient ardour and pathos to make it sound fresh and worthy of renewed attention. The tone Lu elicits from his 1699 ‘Miss Crespi’ Stradivari is clear and direct and somewhat reminiscent of that produced by the late, great Isaac Stern. Lu is adept at marrying his technical prowess to musical drama, entering wholly into the grandeur of the outer movements, while investing the slow movement with lyrical contrasts. Lu’s strong rhythmical sense was also evident in his solo encore, the Czárdás by Vittorio Monti.

Tchaikovsky’s last symphony has not been off the MSO menu for the last two years, being performed in Melbourne in March 2017 and, as already mentioned, played on tour in 2018. It is a measure of the music’s appeal that after so many performances it still gets under the players’ skin, because there was no doubting that Andrew Davis directed an utterly heartfelt account. At this stage in his tenure with the orchestra, and at the beginning of his final year as Chief Conductor there is a strong sense of shared enjoyment between players and maestro, and that Davis is no micro-manager, but rather encourager-in-chief.

This symbiosis yielded many dividends throughout. From the euphoric climax of the penultimate movement to the desolation of the finale, there was a strong sense of commitment and a telling ringing of changes. The ensemble of the wind playing was excellent and string tone particularly lush in the central section of the second movement, with its lopsided waltz. Brass intonation tended not to suffer from any excess enthusiasm. As a whole, this commendable performance was more than the sum of its parts.

So, what are we to make of this gala and what is the message the MSO is trying to send? Support for conservative programming and a strongly developing link with China seem to be uppermost. Many things were left unsaid that might have been worth saying (or reiterating). For example, the orchestra’s support of Australian composers and artists (as evinced in the forthcoming performance of Deborah Cheetham’s Eumeralla: A War Requiem for Peace) or opportunities for contemporary music in the Metropolis Festival. There also seems to be an increase in more ‘popular’ events such as film accompaniment, which presumably bring in much needed funds, but is there a vision for big classical projects, such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony to bring Davis’s Mahler cycle to close?

This gala is further evidence that the MSO is capable of great things. Its current and future audiences are waiting for a strong, visionary statement of its artistic intent.

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