When audience members are seated in the choir stalls on both sides of the Hamer Hall stage, we know that there is a near capacity crowd eager to welcome our finest Australian musicians in a freshly designed 2022 orchestral program. Deborah Cheetham’s Welcome to Country for string ensemble and spoken word has firmed its place as a respectful greeting at Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts, opening each concert program with a new reflective tradition. Some other traditions are changing in the overall concert procedure, with program notes now being found on line in a very extensive booklet which requires the audience to do preparatory research, print out copious pages at home or scrutinize mobile phones more frequently than usual during the concert. For tonight’s two colossal four-movement works, each musical subtitle was projected onto the back wall, and conductor Ben Northey also shared warm and connecting words with the audience, engaging us with his enthusiasm and respect for tonight’s momentous program. Northey referred to the historical overlap of the featured composers – Brahms (1833-1897) and Korngold (1897-1957) – and introduced both works; but perhaps the lengthier discussion on Korngold could have been better placed after interval before that huge piece.
Outstanding Queenslander and international soloist, Daniel de Borah was not fooled by Brahms’ comment, “I have written a very small piano concerto with a very small and pretty scherzo”. His detailed and virtuosic performance of Brahms’ Concerto No. 2 in B-flat showed a great understanding of this immense symphonic work, which is considerably longer than other Romantic concerto forms. How grand and uplifting was the signature opening theme, the heart-warming melody on the French Horn, the surging flowing passionate statements on the piano and de Borah’s familiar elegance, sensitivity and deceptively “calm” virtuosity. The first movement’s conversations between orchestra and soloist were finely balanced as Northey very astutely led each section of the orchestra through many changes of dynamics, subtly complementing the soloist’s passionate entries and dramatic statements. Strings were quite beautiful, there was no hurry through the broad romantic themes, we had time to relish every melodic detail as de Borah delivered many shining cascading runs from high treble to bass depths on the piano.
As traditions are re-inventing themselves, several audience members applauded this first movement, a practice now quite unpredictable for audience and orchestra. Northey carefully paused till a definite silence allowed the music to reassert its place. Later, his best choice was to move more quickly to the next movement, but applause overlapped the orchestra’s entry. This pattern of minor applause continued after every movement, with a divided audience of clappers and non-clappers, a few groans from the majority of disapprovers, while some others were quick to use the opportunity to be a fast phone-tapper or whisper to a neighbour. It seems that another tradition has hit the dust. Silence has been sacrificed.
In the second movement de Borah continued to show his magical touch, producing different timbres from both hands as if each was on a different instrument. Four French horns and two trumpets fortified a scintillating and passionate close. A brooding and questioning third movement Andante featured principal cellist David Berlin, with sensitive and searching piano entries finding the way through shadows and glimpses of light. One particularly long dark chord made a striking spiritual impact before Berlin’s cello joined de Borah’s sparkling piano trills leading to a full orchestral close. The final movement showed the great rapport between conductor and soloist, with pizzicato strings enhancing the soloist’s virtuosic flair and passionate expression in contrasting elaborate passages and buoyant dance rhythms.
This was an intelligent interpretation of a colossal concerto.
Following interval, the stage was reset, almost full to the brim with instruments, and a line of brass stretching full width of the stage for Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp. Erich Korngold’s story is extraordinary. Greatly admired by Mahler and R. Strauss, his early recognition as an opera and cinematic orchestral composer suffered as a result of political developments and loss of public support in Austria. He found new life in Hollywood, USA, receiving major accolades, an Academy Award for a Best Original Score and nominations for his masterful and unique film scoring. His inventive, distinctly personal orchestration and innovative ideas set the benchmark for young cinematic composers to follow.
A lengthy work completed in 1953 (but not publicly performed till 1972), the Symphonyopens with accented chords and startling arhythmic punctuations, immediately creating nervous tension and high drama. In uncertain space, mournful solo instruments reveal themselves, clarinet first, then bassoon. Contrasting sections follow with moments of orchestral beauty from flute and sustained strings leading immediately to rising energy and further explosive blasts of two or three note themes. The second movement Scherzo showed the MSO’s excellent ensemble work, as sections skipped energetically, with piano, harp, celeste and timpani featured. Scenes and sections changed frequently, from flowing strings and celeste taking us first to calmer waters, then to intense crescendos and sombre, fatalistic recurring short punctuating themes. This was gripping and exciting orchestration. Sometimes a listener could wonder – where are these different sections leading to, where are these underlying deep pulses taking us? If the third movement spoke of Korngold’s desolate reflections of post war Austria, the fourth movement suggested his life-saving era in Hollywood with piccolo solo (Andrew Macleod) and bass drum giving a salute to America’s bold celebratory marching bands. References to opening themes and huge final chords led us to feel for Korngold’s hard-fought life with no glory. We were almost over-awed by Korngold’s personal and tragic story, and re-lived history with this freshly revived and most challenging emotional work. In final bows, Northey held the score aloft as a celebratory tribute. Bravo team MSO!
Photo supplied by the MSO.
Julie McErlain reviewed “Brahms and Korngold”, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at Hamer Hall on March 31, 2022.