Although the title of the evening was “Ray Chen performs Tchaikovsky”, let’s set aside those elements for one moment and focus on the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, as it was, after all, their mid-season gala. There is much good news to report. Post COVID-19 and now settled with warmly embraced chief conductor Jaime Martin, the MSO delivered a performance of great energy, refinement and commitment. There were memorable moments from a number of players, and a relatively long program passed quickly with a transfixed and near capacity Hamer Hall audience.
Ligeti in his most approachable guise began proceedings. The Concert Românesc dates from 1951 when the composer was in his late 20’s. Like his forebears Bartok and Kodaly, Ligeti was enthused by folk traditions and the work treats the elements with genuine affection. There is no singular soloist but significant moments are offered to just about every section of the orchestra, and there were memorable contributions from clarinet Philip Arkinstall, cor anglais Rachel Curkpatrick, concertmaster Dale Barltrop and the theatrical antiphony between horns on stage and a distantly placed horn on a far balcony. A couple of scrappier moments of ensemble didn’t take away from a most enjoyable performance of this rarely heard work.
The symphony was Rachmaninov’s luscious and tune-filled second, a work where you sense the composer healing and achieving peace after the disastrous reception to his first effort in the genre. It is an expansive canvas, full of invention and interesting counterpoint and offering plenty for each section of the ensemble to indulge in. Martin has a capacity to really make his players perform and some of the most consistently exciting MSO playing I have heard in years has been under his direction.
Criticisms? Well, I would argue Martin took Rachmaninov’s known distaste of rubato and sentimentality a little too much to heart. Tempi were consistently brisk and there were many corners where I was desperate for a little more indulgence. The long first movement requires a firm conviction of arc and this reading could have been more deliberate in its highlighting of the structure. Arkinstall shone again in the radiant third movement solo, and there was some very fine string playing with a gratifying meatiness. This was ultimately a very satisfying performance that would stand alongside the ensemble of many world class recordings.
What to say of the headline act? Ray Chen is no stranger to Australian audiences and he has built an enviable career with unusual fame and following for a classical artist in the 21st century. His performance certainly demonstrated flair, moments of technical wizardry and the high energy charisma for which he is famous. But this was not a Tchaikovsky for those who crave nuance. From the opening motif, Chen served up extra of everything, performing with huge vitality and letting his face do as much of the storytelling as his playing. What was the story he was telling? Clearly one a vast majority of the audience enjoyed. For my taste, it was altogether too shallow and failed to explore much of the possible emotional terrain. In Chen’s hands, a piece that should have the grand narrative arc of a Tolstoy novel was reduced to the soundtrack to a video game, his facial gestures alerting us along the way to another collected token or new level achieved. Perhaps in that sense this was the perfect performance for the times, for an audience who love an instagram moment. It’s hard to argue with the heroic reception to the concerto and Chen’s encore homage to his homeland in the form of a fantasy on the tune of Waltzing Matilda. It will be interesting to see how the sophistication of his artistry matures to match his gifts as a performer.
Photo credit Laura Manariti.
Stewart Kelly reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s “Ryman Healthcare Winter Gala: Ray Chen performs Tchaikovsky” presented at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on June 29, 2023.