“Dixit Dominus” was advertised by Melbourne Chamber Orchestra as “A feast for lovers of Handel and an uplifting end to our musical year”. It was certainly that – and more. For those attending this concert, it was, most significantly, the final concert of William Hennessy AM as Director of MCO and the end of an era. It is difficult to imagine who could possibly replace an artist with such an outstanding list of accomplishments as violinist, musical director and educator.
In addition to the musical feast, words of appreciation featured. Hennessy himself spoke about his own passions and the important role that beauty plays in his fundamental connection with music. Not that he thought that all music should be beautiful – the ugly too has its place, and we saw a little of that in one of the more strident elements among the beauties of Matt Laing’s Pantomime. Hennessy’s role as an educator and nurturer of young musical talent was also apparent. Being a passionate advocate of Australian composers, and a member of Faculty at the Australian National Academy of Music when Laing was a viola student there and beginning to make his way as a young composer of note, Hennessy’s choice of Pantomime for this program was eminently appropriate. The inclusion of a couple of young violinists in the ensemble further highlighted Hennessy’s ongoing devotion to the development of future performers.
Works by Handel bookended a program that began with his Concerto Grosso in D major Op. 6 No. 5 and concluded with Dixit Dominus. The six short movements of the Concerto Grosso displayed the strengths of the MCO strings and Hennessy as a vigilant, energetic leader. The physical arrangement of divided strings separated by the continuo instruments was ideal for following the to-and-fro of the two concertino violins – Hennessy and Natalia Harvey. The vitality and precision invested by Hennessy in the Overture’s opening solo passage of buoyant dotted rhythms set the tone for everything that followed. Harvey provided an expressive counterpoint and Elina Faskhitdinova was a warmly eloquent third member of the concertino trio, most notably in the Largo. Cleanly articulated scale passages, nicely contrasting dynamics, exciting exchanges between concertino and ripieno strings, full string tone in the dancing fifth Allegro movement, and a graceful final Menuet created a joyful atmosphere.
Hennessy’s arrangement for string orchestra of Poulenc’s Quatre petits prières de Saint François d’Assise reflected a significant moment in his musical development. In his introduction to the work, he described the first musically defining moment in his life: first hearing Beethoven’s second Razumovsky string quartet in Sydney and realizing “that’s the sort of thing my life has to be about”. A sequel was discovering the beauty of Poulenc’s music in his teens – a sense that new music did not have to be so ugly. He hoped that the audience would not mind that it was not sung by a collection of male voices for which it was written; instead, Hennessy scored the work for violins, using the G string only as the tenor voice with other parts distributed around. Four “little prayers”, characterised by suggestions of Gregorian chant, began with some lush string tone of Salut, Dame Sainte. Block dynamics and a softly reverberating Tout puissant was followed by an expansive Seigneur, je vous en prie. The final, O mes très chers frères, with its initial mellow solo violin on the G string, Poulenc referred to as “a simple solo … like a monk leading his brothers in prayer”. It is unlikely that anybody would have had the slightest objection to this evocative, finely sculpted arrangement.
Matt Laing provided helpful verbal and musical information in his introduction to his programmatic work, Pantomime, inspired by the Tim Burton poem The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. It tells the surreal story – which Laing recited – of a boy born half human half oyster, and how the self-interest of those who are meant to care for him lead to his death. Quirkily humorous, it is essentially a dark tale, musically rendered in a carefully constructed interweaving of motifs that the musicians demonstrated prior to performance. A narrator, the parents who wanted a girl and are totally oblivious to what was going on, Oyster Boy himself and his death – embodied in a high E-string note – followed a disturbing but ingenious musical trajectory. At only nine minutes duration, a second playing would have been welcome in order to appreciate the work more fully.
A distinct change of mood came with another six-movement Concerto Grosso, this time Corelli’s in G minor, Op. 6 No. 8. With the title fatto per la note di Natale (made for a Christmas night), an appropriately seasonal theme was incorporated. Employing much the same forces as the Handel, short, contrasting movements drew on the virtuosic skills of the performers. Once again, there was some beautiful interweaving of the two concertino violins in the third, Adagio Allegro -Adagio movement, with Hennessy’s cadenza adding impressive brilliance.
Under the baton of Michael Fulcher, Director of Polyphonic Voices, Handel’s exhilarating Dixit Dominus was performed with skill and gusto by instrumentalists and the singers alike. The members of the 21-voice choir were deployed in blocks surrounding the strings and harpsichord, in a sequence of alto, sopranos, bass then tenor. This arrangement gave much greater prominence to the alto and tenor lines than usual, the result being that all parts could be heard much more clearly than is often the case, especially in fugal and canonic passages. Having a strong alto soloist in Alex Ritter stand nearest to the edge of the stage increased the aural presence of the alto line, as was the case with the positioning of tenor Timothy Reynolds. The crystalline, pure soprano voices of Amelia Jones and Ailsa Webb, floated with well-matched, bell-like ease from behind the players, while baritone Lachlan McDonald contributed effectively in solo and ensemble sections. Despite the occasional slight blurring of some florid choral passages, clean attack, precision and clarity were hallmarks of this performance. Among its many virtues, the penultimate movement delivered a special highlight. Following an introduction of gently plucked strings, the two soprano soloists drew an exquisite line of beauty, underpinned by very soft, relaxed singing from the tenors, who just sat there unobtrusively. An exultant “Gloria” made a fitting finale to the musical part of the program.
Following a short speech of thanks by MCO Chair, Fran Thorne, who honoured him for his artistic integrity and commitment to beauty of sound, William Hennessy had the final word. He apologised for any mistakes he might have made at the beginning and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to learn. He also paid tribute to those who have supported Melbourne Chamber Orchestra over the years. As he spoke optimistically about the future – for MCO and for his own career (no, he’s not retiring) – we wondered who could possibly replace the irreplaceable. Enthusiastic cheering from the audience and a gigantic sheaf of flowers were final reminders that William Hennessy’s achievements to date are enormously valued.
Heather Leviston reviewed “Dixit Dominus” presented by Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Polyphonic Voices at the Melbourne Recital Centre on November 28, 2021.