This was a wonderful and inspiring concert where we celebrated young high achievers with our established artists in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Christian Li was indeed the drawcard, but so too was the music by young composers in history – prodigies. Staging, presentation, and even, dare I say, the absence of a conductor’s podium, where the audience’s vision is usually focussed, allowed MSO musicians to be connected and expressive in a most exciting and engaging way.
String players first took the honours, with violin and viola players standing, able to perform with a fuller sense of freedom and communication, with Dale Barltrop, as concertmaster and director, expertly and authoritatively leading the team. By award winning composer Caroline Shaw (born 1982), Entr’acte , written in 2011, for string orchestra, was described by MSO violinist Monica Curro in her pre-concert talk as exploring “the ephemeral nature of life” and being a work maximising extended string techniques. Confident, fully bowed harmonic chords powerfully engaged us in a colourful opening section that dissolved into pizzicato, rhythmic irregularity, short notes flitting and flying upwards into the air, spaced by silences and softness. The two main sections seemed poles apart, as rising notes felt scattered in the wind, floating upwards in an extraordinary 3D sonic illusion. Elements of both sections were repeated as glissando bowings, energetic accents and an unexpected final statement on solo cello strummed gentle chords, all gave us a rewarding close encounter with the MSO strings and a new composer.
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K 216, composed and performed by Mozart as a young man, was a perfect work for Melbourne’s own well-loved prodigy, Christian Li. Already a highly accomplished, award-winning and recorded musician he is currently Young Artist in Association with the MSO. He was the drawcard for the many young people and music students in the audience who came to be inspired by Li and continue to share his musical journey. Taking centre stage, Li has developed an honest sense of respectful showmanship and pride, physically and warmly sharing authoritative leadership with Barltrop, turning his stance to connect with key sections of the orchestra and proudly owning the audience with his exceptional technique and passion. The full character of Mozart’s graceful and nicely invigorating work was portrayed with sensitive phrasing and finely tuned accompanying by MSO players, with Barltrop sharing a united charisma, precision in ensemble and joy for the occasion. Most impressive were Li’s sweet tone and pitch on the highest of notes, his mastery of tonal contrast across low, medium and highest melodic settings, his superb quality of sound, the cleanest of embellishments and faultless performance from memory. With two fine 18th century violins in the hands of both concertmaster and soloist, the audience received an authentic and most admirable playing of Mozart’s heart- warming piece.
Following interval, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 was given a forthright opening by the full orchestra with brass and woodwind broadening the Romantic textures and dynamics, building to an almost Beethovian passionate close. In the second movement – Adagio – Mendelssohn explores combinations of instruments within a very lovely balanced wind choir, which highlighted the artistry of MSO players as soloists – the oboe in particular. Quite expressive was a third movement Minuet – Allegro molto. With its formal classical boundaries removed, the piece was greatly coloured with dense, colourful textures, rhythmic vitality and brusque harmonies, the Minuet of old becoming more of an earthy and extroverted folk-dance. Its beautiful contrasting section featured hymn-like, contemplative flute work, delicate and sensitive sounds with very fine pianissimo string and timpani accompaniments.
The fourth movement proved to be a perfect concert closure. Allegro con fuoco was modestly dramatic but full of personality and celebration, highlighting an admirable team of very pianissimo pizzicato strings under dialogue between flute and clarinet. A surprising Coda affirmed a more Con fuoco buoyant closure, leaving us with high spirits and much admiration for the performance by the MSO and young prodigy, Christian Li, and for the splendid works composed by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Caroline Shaw in their youth.
Julie McErlain reviewedProdigies: Mozart and Mendelssohn, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on September 2, 2023.