The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Beethoven’s Ninth” concert began with a performance of Zhao Jiping’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Mr. Jiping, who has composed numerous scores for television dramas and films, such as The Yellow Earth, Red Sorghum and Farewell My Concubine, is considered one of the most active and foremost composers in China today. He uses elements of Chinese music in his works but not in a strictly accurate style – rather, referring to Chinese elements in his compositions. When asked what the core idea or emotion that he wanted to convey is in the Concerto, he said that it was to convey a “universal love”. This is presumably how the Violin Concerto was programmed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where Beethoven wanted to write a symphony that united all mankind in peace and love.
The violin soloist for Jiping’s Violin Concerto No.1 was Ning Feng, an internationally recognised artist “of great lyricism, innate musicality and stunning virtuosity”. He most certainly demonstrated this in his performance of the concerto. He was totally involved emotionally in the entire work and knew his part inside out. Mr. Feng worked on the violin score for the composer, arranging the fingering and bowing techniques, and going “far beyond the composer’s expectations in performing the work”. Jiping also commented: “he (Ning Feng) has provided this concerto with the wings it needs to fly high around the world”. The tone-quality when Mr. Feng played the lower notes of his violin was particularly full and lush.
Unlike many concerti, Jiping’s Concerto, which lasts about 20 minutes, is in one movement, with several sections conveying different moods. The work began with notes from the horns, and the harmony that developed reminded me a little of An American in Paris – very “Hollywood Musical”. Violins introduced the first tune, which was simple and eminently singable – as with Beethoven’s “Freude” or “Ode to Joy”. The soloist entered and echoes the violins, playing the simple first theme again. He played in the lower register of the violin, which gave the tune a very melancholy mood that suggested a deep longing and reminded me of John William’s Schindler’s List main theme. Eventually the soloist leaped an octave and the orchestra crescendoed to a full rendition in unison of the first theme with the soloist.
After this section we reached a calmer theme, which seemed to me to suggest a river flowing along gently and, in the more frenetic parts, a subway full of people catching trains and rushing about their lives. This section included variations on the first theme by the soloist with added ornamentation and flourishes, and we returned to the bustling subway mood. At the peak of this loud bustling section a lovely, calm, soft change appeared with a delicate triangle and solo flute and bassoon melodies, followed by a delightful harp section with running scales, suggesting the calm running stream again. The soloist re-entered with the original tune, now ornamented and more poignant than at the start. A new section was signalled by the double basses with a fugue-like theme, echoed by other sections of the orchestra. Muted brass effects added to the atmosphere, which led to me thinking, “What will happen next?”
A lovely new section with Chinese effects like temple bells and gong emerged with the use of percussion and delicate woodwind playing. We were returned to the “bustling” theme and a diminuendo led back to the soloist reiterating the first, melancholy theme. His cadenza recalled the previous themes in a not particularly emotional way and the orchestra re-entered when he stopped – not at all like a traditional concerto where playing the dominant leads the orchestra back in. Harp and soloist reprised the first theme in its simple, singable style and when the strings re-entered the soloist’s playing of the theme sounded even more like weeping as it became ever more poignant. The full strings played the first theme while the brass section played their alternate theme. The soloist returned with the first theme and then held a long harmonic high note and the concerto finished with descending “Hollywood” chords, reiteration of the main theme, a long tremolo from strings and soloists and a full crescendo to the end. I recommend listening to the Concerto on YouTube – “Violinist Ning Feng/Zhao Jiping Violin Concerto NO.1/2017 US Premiere”. A thoroughly delightful work.
However, how can you compare a fairly light Violin Concerto with aspirations to appeal to all mankind in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? What an incredible idea of Beethoven’s to add four vocal soloists and a choir to the end of his Symphony. In his book Beethoven, Jan Swafford writes: “In an unprecedented way for a composer …. Beethoven stepped into history with a communal ritual that does not simply preach a sermon about freedom and brotherhood but aspires to help bring them to pass.” “The Freude theme would end up as the anthem of a Europe united after centuries of war.” Beethoven wanted his Freude theme to be “a little tune that everyone could remember and nearly everyone could sing. He wanted a theme to conquer the world and he did it.”
The MSO performed the work with great attention to detail as expected by their wonderful Principal Guest Conductor, Xian Zhang. She is small of stature but huge in conducting skills. It was a delight to watch her throughout the entire concert, being totally absorbed in leading the orchestra and bringing out subtle nuances not often heard in regular performances. It was inspiring to “read” what Ms. Zhang wanted by watching her left hand and her body movements. During soft or slow passages she used an absolute economy of movement, only indicating main beats, but in louder and faster passages she threw her whole body into her conducting, which gave such clear direction to both orchestra and audience. There was no theatricality – just clear leadership and wonderful musicianship.
The four soloists were soprano Madeleine Pierard, mezzo-soprano Ashlyn Tymms, tenor Rosario La Spina, and bass Nathan Berg. A Canadian, Mr. Berg led the vocal entries very securely and with an obvious enjoyment of the work. His singing was excellent but surely the MSO could have used a Melbourne Bass soloist? The four soloists sang their small but very demanding parts well. They were almost drowned by the orchestra and Chorus in full flight, but they successfully held their own and their tone was well matched to that of the MSO Chorus. The soprano soloist had a very clear voice that matched the clarity of the Chorus sopranos, rather than the often-heard large operatic soprano sound.
The MSO Chorus was excellent in this huge work. I attended their rehearsal the night before where members of the public were able to hear Xian Zhang rehearsing the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. People were only sitting in the Circle so that the balance seemed all wrong and very uninspiring. I wonder whether anybody bought a ticket for the real concert after hearing such a disappointing sound?
With the audience applauding after the first movement and again after the second movement, plus the entry of the Chorus and soloists after the second movement, the Ninth Symphony seemed broken into three pieces rather than being an homogenous whole. Certainly it is a long work but, surely the MSO Chorus could have sat on stage for the full work. If the soloists didn’t want to sit onstage for the whole work, surely there was a loud section at the start of the fourth movement during which they could take their seats quietly and unobtrusively? It was nice to see some colour on stage in Ashlyn Tymms’ lovely red gown. The soprano wore black and the two men were not in dinner suits with bow ties. Is this the way to encourage “ordinary” people as opposed to “music aficionados” to attend MSO concerts? My personal opinion is that such a great work as the Ninth deserves more “dressing up”, especially by the tenor and bass soloists.
When it is all boiled down though, what matters most is the music and how it is performed. The MSO played wonderfully as always, with only a few very minor blips. The violin soloist, vocal soloists and MSO Chorus all did their parts splendidly to give us a wonderful concert. The conductor, Xian Zhang was simply inspiring and all on stage deserved the audience’s standing ovation.
Photo credit: Mark Gambino
Jennifer Turner reviewed “Beethoven’s Ninth”, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on June 30, 2022.