Titled Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, this concert had a number of potential rivals for naming rights. The Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No.3 was worthy of note, partly for curiosity value as his cello concerto gets far more airings. Similarly, soloist Karen Gomyo is both a newcomer to Melbourne and brings with her, not only a 1703 Stradivarius violin, but an impressive list of achievements. But the conductor Matthias Pintscher surely trumped both composer and soloist, being also the composer of the first work on the program, the Australian premiere of Idyll.
Pintscher showed unbelievable restraint, as it happened, in not leaving the rostrum to attack the persistent coughers in the audience who disrupted his piece unforgivably. Idyll, as the name suggests, was a piece that should have lulled the listener into a state of pleasant languor reminiscent of a sunny afternoon. Much of this was thanks to the percussive effects, using instruments in a gentle and imaginative way, such as brushing metal tubes gently to create a swishing sound like waves, perhaps.
Program notes by Hugh McDonald talked of the work “building sonic textures out of intricately blended instrumental effects” while also allowing solo instruments to stand out. The piano, beautifully played by Leigh Harrold, marked the end of the most energetic passage by returning to the calm motifs of the opening statement. While the piece seemed a little long, and (without the benefit of knowing it well), at times repetitive, the composer had a strong feel for the capacities of the different instruments in the orchestra, something that may well have had to do with his other role as a conductor. It was a characteristic he carried into the other two works as well.
The Beethoven demonstrated this empathy in good measure, from the poco sostenuto to begin, to the musically satisfying climax of the work, in itself a reminder that the Seventh Symphony was also of course by the composer of the Fifth and the Ninth! The first movement was notable for the early dialogue between violins and winds and of course the emergence of the well-known first movement theme. The conductor allowed a lightness in the development although the MSO revelled in the stressed notes, and the antiphonal nature of the music gave the winds the opportunity to shine.
The Allegretto delivered a theme more like that of an andante or slow movement, beginning with a plangent duet between cellos and basses, executed with subtle and perfect timing. The development of this movement was sweet, rich and melodious and beautifully managed and paced by the conductor. The third movement was also unique for having the structure of a Presto and Trio form – twice. The conductor appear to be enjoying himself and why not? He had an orchestra that was very responsive to his unfussy directions in this bridge to the final outburst of sound. This movement could be seen as one long build to the climax. The pace seemed hectic but the orchestra was up to it with many musicians clearly smiling with enjoyment!
That I have left the main work of the night, the Saint-Saens Violin concerto, to last is no reflection on the work or the performance of Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo, both of which were superb. The soloist, at first noticeable for her broad smile and her well-chosen brown beaded gown, soon captivated the audience with her execution of the strong theme of the first movement. The second segued from a much sweeter sound into a technically brilliant performance with arpeggios, pizzicato, trills, and (it seemed) every other technique the composer could find to show off the solo instrument.
The second movement featured a swaying violin solo from the outset set against a lilting of strings and occasional winds. This was music that suited the soloist the conductor and the whole orchestra although there were many challenges in the form of embellishments woven into the solo part. Notable also were the winds duet with the violins and the series of slow quiet arpeggios to end, the orchestra perfectly in sync.
The third movement, however, was all for the soloist to begin, in what Gordon Williams’ program notes accurately described as “an accompanied cadenza”. Karen Gomyo was given the perfect opportunity to show off her star quality, managing first a rhythm that seemed to borrow from Slavic dance, a solemn and lovely chorale before a return to the technical brilliance that has made the soloist’s reputation precede her. The brass delivered a strong sound at this point, as the violin was at first ethereal as the work headed for its climax, a last thought being a quite skittish section and then a reiteration of the theme as Pintscher drove the work to a conclusion that drew enthusiastic applause.