“Higher Power” is the latest offering from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra in this ambitious debut season from new artistic director Sophie Rowell. For this project, the band collaborated with local choir Polyphonic Voices and director Michael Fulcher and once again delivered a performance that demonstrated the MCO’s vitality and import in the local music scene.
The program opened with two works for strings alone: a most inventive Sinfonia of CPE Bach that displays his extraordinary gifts of rhetoric. Kudos to the MCO for reminding us what an underplayed composer he is. This is a vast repertoire from this period of great quality that is tragically ignored.
From the very first bar of Veni Creator Spiritus one was transported to the unmistakable world of Ross Edwards. The searching opening movement evokes the vast landscapes and big skies that Edwards often captures so beautifully. His signature ‘maninyas’ are ever present in the second movement, which displayed some impressive solo lines darting between all sections of the orchestra. It once again showed how good this band is at balancing the very opposite skills of achieving a homogenous orchestral blend while switching into a real chamber ensemble mindset. This is particularly necessary given this work’s original 1993 version was for string octet. It seems to work far better in this later string orchestra arrangement with its possibility of more generous string sonority and double bass. This was a worthy tribute to Edwards’ 80th birthday and his significant contribution to Australian music.
The first half concludes with Vivaldi’s Magnificat. This is a tricky piece to achieve cohesion – nine movements in barely 15 minutes means there is very little space to develop ideas; on this occasion it took a movement for choir and orchestra to find the right balance but this was overall a successful collaboration. The choir achieved a full sound that was never forced and resonated with beautiful intonation.
The richest rewards came in the second half, which opened with the euphoric Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 of J.S Bach. This work requires a team of true soloists and the MCO delivered a daring performance. The biggest question in interpreting this piece is what to do with Bach’s cryptic second movement. He writes just two chords in the score – a possible invitation to improvise. Some readings play them literally as the briefest bridge to continue to the third movement. Sometimes you’ll hear a solo instrument take a cadenza. In this case, harpsichord wizard Laurence Matheson composed an offering for a small ensemble that provided a stylish and inventive bridge to an electric finale in which the champagne corks pop freely. A truly memorable performance.
On paper, contrasting the ceaselessly optimistic Bach with the pathos and solemnity of Vasks’ Da Pacem, Domine seemed jarring, but in practice it worked well. This peace offering was composed for a concert marking the composer’s 70th birthday in 2016. It evokes the same desolate space that so much of the Vasks oeuvre is known for – a searching, open world that is at once the product of someone who understands a long winter but can offer the warmest heart. The intensity of playing reached its zenith in this work to which the band and choir had obvious connection. Fulcher shaped the work beautifully. The slowly evolving texture can be bland in the wrong hands but this was a considered and dedicated reading that clearly left the audience deeply moved.
Photo credit: Lucien Fischer
Stewart Kelly reviewed “Higher Power”, presented by Melbourne Chamber Orchestra in conjunction with Polyphonic Voices at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elizabeth Murdoch Hall on May 4, 2023.