In recognition of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s important cultural role, the Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley, outlined their achievements before the concert launch of their 25th season. The statistics presented were impressive indeed; in this year alone there will be 28 touring performances in regional Victoria. If Sunday afternoon’s performance is any indication, then a new generation of music lovers is being nurtured.
Typically, MCO presents programs that include accessible standard repertoire with a smattering of less well-known works, some of which they have commissioned. In this case, compositions for harp and chamber orchestra by Ravel and Debussy opened each half of the program followed by a symphony and a concerto by Mozart. It would be hard to find a program more elevating and pleasing to the ear, especially when given such accomplished performances.
Artistic Director William Hennessy is a renowned teacher and educator as well as being a fine violinist. His position as Artist in Residence at the Australian National Academy of Music has enabled him to nurture young talent and the fruits of this were to be seen on stage for this concert. In addition to a core of experienced, highly skilled artists were several young players recently seen at ANAM. With the launch of the ANAM season the previous night still resonating in this reviewer’s ears, it was doubly gratifying to see professional pathways being forged with MCO.
The choice of harpist Melina van Leeuwen as soloist for Ravel’s Introduction et allegro pour harpe, flûte, clarinette et quatuor and Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane was most appropriate. As a 2015 ANAM alumna, she personified the exciting fresh style of the works themselves in their time. Elegant and stylish in her modern print sleeveless jump suit, she presented both works to best advantage on her concert grand Salzedo harp. Forget the rival harp companies (Pleyel with its new chromatic harp, and Erard with its double-action pedal harp) that commissioned Debussy and Ravel respectively to display the virtues of their products. The audience was persuaded that the colour and expressive qualities of both harp and compositions were ravishing accomplishments in van Leeuwen’s hands.
The beginning of the Ravel set the tone for as pleasant a Sunday afternoon as you could wish. David Griffiths’ clarinet emerged in a subtle caress that was joined by Agatha Yim’s pure flute. The harp contributed soothing washes of sound for the Introduction, which was followed by an Allegro featuring an array of dazzling effects.
Another gentle opening paved the way as strings accompanied the harp for the Debussy after interval. There was also some lovely solo violin work from Hennessy, who directed the orchestra most effectively throughout the afternoon, chiefly by using unobtrusive body language. Starbursts of harp with finely modulated dynamics and elastic rhythmic pulse resulted in a most gratifying experience.
Mozart’s Symphony No 40 is a wonderful piece of music and was played with precision and flair, as Hennessy trusted his players to maintain discipline and momentum without undue interference. Having the concert end with a concerto rather than the symphony may have been unusual, but it was an understandable piece of programming given the sublime nature of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.
There was an unusually large number of children in the audience and it was touching to see a mother sitting along the row from me turn and smile at her son as the David Griffiths began to play. It was an “Isn’t this marvelous?” smile. Enhanced by the warm acoustic, his even tone, dexterity and musicality were a joy. How he managed to play so beautifully following a week of Victorian Opera’s Banquet of Secrets, with its demanding score by Paul Grabowsky, is a mystery – perhaps explained by Griffiths’ huge reserves of stamina.
Despite the dark moments of this concerto, the concert could not have ended on a happier note – one designed to send an audience off into the sunshine feeling spiritually nourished.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre on March 6.
The picture of harpist Melina van Leeuwen is by Darren James.