The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra is a precious and under-appreciated cornerstone of Victoria’s classical music scene. After more than two decades of leadership under William Hennessy AM, the decision on a replacement was clearly not made lightly and much fanfare was made of securing violinist Sophie Rowell as new leader and Artistic Director.
Woven Threads marked Rowell’s first official appearance as both director and programmer in the director’s post and the choice could not look more inspired. A re-invigorated MCO performed with energy and sophistication in a program that traversed many styles and showcased the depth of the ensemble’s talent.
What a classy and brave choice to begin with music from Bach’s Musical Offering. The profound, gradual six-part fugue acted perfectly as a metaphorical sunrise to a new era for the ensemble.
Meraki, a composition from 2020 by the Melbourne based Melody Eötvös, followed. The word comes from Greek and describes the feeling of “putting something of yourself” into something you love with creativity and passion. Another perfect sentiment for the occasion. The piece grows from a desolate and ambiguous opening provided by the lower strings into an atmospheric and captivating exploration of orchestral string colours that managed to remain original while invoking hints of a vast range of inspirations from Vaughan-Williams and Elgar to Shostakovich, Britten and Sculthorpe.
The vehicle for Rowell to display her talents as soloist was Mendelssohn’s rarely heard D minor concerto, composed when he was just 13. This is no childish study, both in terms of virtuosity or musical depth. If it received more performances like this, from both soloist and band, then perhaps it wouldn’t be quite so overshadowed by its more mature E minor sibling. Rowell, who has previously held positions as Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony and first violinist in the Australian String Quartet has nothing to prove with her playing, but delivered a performance that effortlessly managed the immense technical demands with a playful and relaxed approach to the conversational passages. The orchestra provided a sensitive but energetic and exciting accompaniment.
Mozart, Arensky and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson were on the bill for the second half. As Rowell mentioned from the stage, Mozart’s study in contrapuntal writing, the Adagio and Fugue in C minor sounds most unlike him. It is a magisterial piece that received a considered and invested performance that appropriately chiseled the grand gestures from marble and captured the spiritual feeling of the work. Judging a tempo for the fugue that balances excitement with pathos can be tricky, but was well executed by the celli and Emma Sullivan’s ever-reliable double bass foundation.
Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, composed as a remembrance of his close friend, is at once a moving elegy and an immensely difficult challenge for the ensemble. It was a wonderful choice to display the depth of talent amongst the orchestra’s ranks. This was a tight and inspired reading that treated tender moments with elegance and demonstrated focused listening and technical control in the more virtuosic sections.
The program concluded with a work new to this reviewer, a movement from a Sinfonietta by the American composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Composed in 1955, this driving and rhythmically complex movement was a superb selection to end the evening, evoking flavours of jazz and blues melded with American classical forebears such as Copland, Barber and Dvořák’s American period. During conversations post-concert, several members of the orchestra remarked how difficult a piece it was to learn. The fact that it didn’t remotely sound it from the audience speaks volumes of the capability of this ensemble.
This was an exhilarating start for a new chapter in Melbourne Chamber Orchestra history. Here was a group of musicians strongly invested in their work and truly “performing” for all the right reasons. It’s evident that Rowell has respect and affection from her players. She is an assured presence as leader and was confident to let the lower strings take charge of directing tempi and entries when the music called for it. There is trust in all directions and this was true chamber music making of a world-class level. Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s future looks bright and audiences are the beneficiaries.
Stewart Kelly reviewed “Woven Threads”, performed by the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on March 9, 2023.