As the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall takes us on a continually developing and fruitful musical journey with over 170 recitals already streamed from abroad and from Australian capital cities, a growing and dedicated audience has now contributed close to $750,000 for our concert performers. We congratulate the co-directors Adele Schonhardt and Chris Howlett for also receiving a Special Achievement Award at this year’s National Live Music Awards, and tonight we welcomed the return to the Athenaeum Theatre, described fondly by them as the truly spiritual home of MDCH, for the Lights Up Melbourne series. Centre stage was the very familiar Kawai concert grand but a refreshed and iridescent back wall added a glamorous new look.
There have been many responses to these new lockdown times, but Kristian Chong’s chosen repertoire, selected with a true wisdom and understanding of key sequence and the emotions of music in programming, resulted in a soul-stirring and highly affective performance. How many of us at home are also looking to Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and feeling the angst of minor keys, sharing the human condition and seeking comfort in playing the music we learnt as students, seeking a security and escape while remembering past relationships with mentors and teachers, as the timeless qualities of music soothe our present inner anxieties. When Chong eloquently and warmly introduced his program to us, we shared his desire to seek hope through magical musical moments.
Brahms’ Ballade No 1 in D minor, with its rich and sensitive chords, was a poignant and sensitive opening work. Melancholy gave way to resilience as a more vigorous central section broadened with insistent chords and bold harmony, gradually returning to final shadows and broodiness. Very beautiful was Chong’s careful and unhurried alternating cross-handed conversation between upper melody and answering bass, elegant, and restrained. Magical.
The D minor key took us to the tonally contrasting Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue in D minor by Bach. Our own hopes and fantasies emerged in this imaginative and free journey, where Chong’s precision and affirmation took us from a cool, intellectually shaped beginning, where individual notes had clear character, towards contrasting tonal colours achieved with careful pedalling and rubato. The Fugue was a masterly and mature performance showing spirit, vitality and precise articulation. Exact contours of voices and a lively spirited staccato led to the uplifting closing D major cadence.
In lockdown, we value our friends and turn to nature for joy and wonder. Chong spoke of his respect for Calvin Bowman’s craft, playing his beautiful sweet interlude, Don Grant’s Dragonfly. With crystal clear trills and chromatic flutters, simplicity in miniature effects and tonality, the upper registers of the piano sparkled with harmonic and colourful pleasantries. In our isolation we felt all was bright and beautiful.
Three Rachmaninoff preludes brought us back to the rich portraits of Romantic expression, introspection and spiritual wonderment. Opus 23 Prelude No 4 in D brought back the questioning and gentle anxiety, which increased through the central build-up of dense chords, before receding towards the final gentle descending cadence with a sigh of resignation. Opus 32 Prelude No 5 in G gave us very lovely expressive playing, fresh life and light in the major key with shimmering Spring colours and sunshine. The more virtuosic and technicalepisodes of Prelude No 12 in G# minor from the same opus provided touches of drama, agitation, and restlessness. Sustained, single shadowy bass notes lingered under the opening high fluttering waves of arpeggios, suggesting a hidden turbulence and anxiety. Hope seemed distant and out of reach in the closing bars, with a soft but scintillating upward chromatic run, delicately executed.
Chong dedicated Chopin’s Nocturne Op 55 No 1 in F minorto Noreen Stokes, a special and inspiring teacher at Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium, and shared his memories and feelings of enjoyment and hopefulness in this well-loved work. Significant were his expressive and imaginative variations with each recurring statement of the opening theme as he added much warmth, rather than anguish, to the insistent pulse beats. Closing the program with a second piece in F minor – Schubert’s Impromptu No 1 (D935) – Chong held our full attention from the striking opening chord and dotted rhythms, a quasi fanfare announcing an epic story, through the extensive middle section, where the major key conjured up romantic, dreamy, pastorale effects, a calming reassurance before returning to the fateful F minor key. Again, a special moment was the central dialogue of short motifs between high and low registers, a beautiful question and answer episode, achieved by the pianist crossing hands to reach delicate and soulful harmonies over a rippling accompaniment.
Kristian Chong gave us a remarkably expressive and relevant program, later joining the MDCH co-directors for an amiable Q&A to relate more of his experiences of the past few months. For Kristian, in isolation, practice and preparation is the key, as “the music means everything”, and tonight our experiences and feelings were highly reflected in an ideal program for these times.
Julie McErlain reviewed Kristian Chong’s piano recital “Mystique, Fantasy and Hope”, presented by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on October 24, 2020.