The 2023 Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Spring Gala concert opened with Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an essay in musical humor if ever there was one, and celebrated for its appearance in Walt Disney’s animated 1940 feature film Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse assumes the role of the hapless apprentice.
In the introduction, the strings opened with a silky diaphanous, shimmering tone, ably supporting the smoothly dove-tailing woodwinds. Admirably crisp articulation characterised the main theme that followed soon thereafter, and the quartet of MSO bassoons and contra-bassoon were a highlight, enjoying an all-too rare centre-stage prominence. Unexpected prominence came also in the form of what can only be described as a defiantly fortissimo mobile phone ring at the most inopportune moment in the work, during a suspense-filled silence, just before the conclusion. Conductor Jaime Martin handled the situation exceedingly well as he waited, and waited, and ……. waited for the ringing to cease. Whether it provided an additional element of humour to proceedings, or frustration, depends on one’s perspective, but concert-going in the twenty-first century certainly provides unique challenges unknown to nineteenth century audiences. Martin, almost seamlessly resumed where he left off, and the work did finally draw to its inevitable conclusion.
Then followed 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Gold Medallist Haochen Zhang to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb minor. Zhang strode to the piano in a relaxed yet quietly confident manner and proceeded to deliver an exhilaratingly memorable reading of this piano warhorse. From the celebrated opening declamatory chords that traverse the entire keyboard, through to the high-octane coda of the third movement finale, Zhang thrilled as much with his delicacy and lyricism as with his assuredly virtuoso technique. With thundering, rich-toned double octaves, imaginatively individual takes on the various cadenzas, dramatic dynamic shifts characterised by sudden swells from pianissimo to fortissimo and back again, a gossamer-like touch in the second movement’s central vertiginous “Il faut s’amuser” waltz, and an aptly jaunty and rambunctious characterisation of the briskly-paced third movement’s opening theme, Zhang allowed the concerto’s many distinct musical characters to emerge, confirming why this concerto is a perennial favourite with audiences and pianists alike. In this compelling reading, Zhang was aided by Martin, who is an unfailingly sympathetic soloists’ conductor, continually turning towards Zhang both to connect collegially with the soloist as well as to engage with the pianist’s stylish ebb and flow.
Haochen Zhang’s 2023 appearance with the MSO continues the love affair that Melbourne seemingly has with the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, held tri-ennially in Fort Worth, Texas. Other recent laureates to appear in Melbourne include Joyce Yang who performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the MSO in September, as well as Yeol Eum Son (Melbourne Recital Centre recitals in 2022 and 2024). Blind Japanese pianist Nobyuki Tsujii, who shared the 2009 Gold Medal with Haochen Zhang is also scheduled to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the MRC in 2024. One can only hope that the shakers and movers at the MSO are moving heaven and earth to secure performances with the Cliburn’s latest Gold Medallist, 19-year old South Korean sensation Yunchan Lim, who has generated unprecedented world-wide excitement for a major piano competition winner. Lim is almost single-handedly re-invigorating classical piano audiences across the world, playing consistently to sold-out venues everywhere but in Australia.
After interval, Martin led his MSO charges in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, a four-movement symphonic suite that is emblematic of the attraction that orientalism held for nineteenth century European, and especially Russian, composers and writers. Rimsky-Korsakov is a masterful colourist, and the orchestra revelled in Scheherazade’s opulent orchestration. Martin’s dramatic pacing was confidently assured and inexorable, in a work that can often come across as piece-meal. Whether it was the infectiously rhythmic vitality of The Tale of Prince Kalendar, the luxuriant tone of the strings of The Young Prince and the Young Princess or the taut disciplined rhythmic precision of The Festival of Baghdad, this was an absorbing, edge-of-the-seat reading. Highlights included beguiling solos from clarinetist David Thomas, cellist David Berlin and flautist Prudence Davis, as well as a double-bass section as animated and engaged as I have ever seen. Yet the most distinguished contribution undoubtedly came from Guest Concertmaster Rebecca Chan, whose gloriously seductive, sinuous tone and understatedly effortless virtuosity were a commanding feature from go to whoa.
Perhaps due to his past life as an accomplished flautist, Martin seems to elicit the most excitingly exuberant and expressive performances from the MSO by conducting, sans baton, as primus inter pares. Rather than autocratically conducting at the members of the orchestra, Martin, with energetic yet supple hands, beseeches them to join him on this wondrous musical journey, and the musical results speak for themselves. Perhaps the orchestra was additionally energised by the presence of nineteen young wide-eyed musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music, who gave their all as they embark upon their professional careers under the guidance of one of the world’s leading conductors, in a well-crafted program of scintillating Romantic orchestral masterworks. This Spring Gala concert was as powerful an advocate for the imperative of quality live music as one could wish for. Kudos to all involved.
Photo credit: Nico Keenan
Glenn Riddle reviewed the “Ryman Healthcare Spring Gala: Symphonic Tales”, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with pianist Haochen Zhang at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on November 9, 2023.