40 years of community music-making is certainly something to celebrate, and the Stonnington Symphony Orchestra was determined to do it in style. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a serious undertaking for a community orchestra, but to program it with Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs plus a new work could seem alarmingly ambitious. Those familiar with this orchestra’s development over the years, however, would have been pretty confident that all would go as splendidly as it in fact did.
With historical links dating back to the 1920s and officially formed in 1983 as the Malvern Symphony Orchestra under the guidance of cellist Janis Laurs, Stonnington Symphony has the stated aim of commitment “to being of and for its local community, actively encouraging anyone interested in symphonic music to become involved in its activities as players, members or volunteers”. It must be said that the quality of the orchestra has attracted audience members far beyond the local community, but there was a strong sense that the occasion had local involvement. The fact that it fulfills its mission “to produce professional-standard, affordably-priced concerts, attractive to a broad spectrum of the community” could be seen in the capacity audience comprising an age range even greater than the18 to 83 range boasted by the orchestra.
Prior to the musical offerings, warm welcomes from the General Manager of Stonnington Symphony, Alex Morris, and from Stonnington’s Deputy Mayor, Councillor Melina Sehr, set a tone of enthusiastic community involvement. The spacious beauty of the Malvern Town Hall itself, with its Wedgewood blue décor, seemed the perfect setting for more than 90 musicians and an appreciative audience to mark this significant milestone.
An Atlas of Joy began the concert on a fitting note. Commissioned by Stonnington Symphony with support from its Artistic Development Fund, Evan Lawson’s work is structured as an Overture that he describes as being “in the vein of Shostakovich or Dvorak”. Drawing inspiration from the other works on the program and their focus on life – Stravinsky’s being about birth and the regeneration of the earth, and Strauss’s about life’s journey – Lawson opted to explore “life and the joy it entails”. No heart-wrenching sunsets and farewells in this work – or sacrificial maidens either. Although he claimed to “give every section a moment to shine, with particular focus on the wind section” this was somewhat at odds with the dominant impression of the “loud and boisterous” that depended heavily on the brass and percussion, particularly the timpani. A work of less than ten-minute duration, it began with a crash of cymbals and brass at their mightiest. As the weighty chords subsided the winds took over with dominant trilling flute reminiscent of the Strauss bird calls. Timpani rolls, trumpet calls, pizzicato strings and melodic fragments from various sections of the orchestra ensued – the most fully formed melody being a lovely extended passage for the cellos. The soundscape included allusions to the other two composers’ works. Towards the end, swirling flutes, horn crescendos and the dragging rhythm from parts of Rite could be heard. It was a dramatic work, full of energy that did indeed provide a showcase for all sections of the orchestra.
The only disappointing aspect of this concert was the lack of the text in the program for Strauss’s Four Last Songs. It is true that most listeners would have been happy to enjoy Lee Abrahmsen’s glorious soprano with only the vaguest idea of what she was singing about; but how much more satisfying it would have been to have fully entered into the spirit of what was a tremendously moving performance. Abrahmsen possesses the most thrillingly resonant voice, one that soars effortlessly above a large orchestra with a substantial brass component. Led by Tracy Tulloch and Bruce Ikin, the work of the eight horn players was admirable throughout the concert – and it was a concert that depended heavily on the quality of the horn section.
Although Concertmaster Ash Wood played the violin solos very capably, Roy Theaker’s excellent violin playing was missed. It was the cost of what we did have – a conductor with the expertise to guide the orchestra through a demanding program without a hitch. The Stravinsky is full of dynamic changes and tricky rhythms, but the orchestra negotiated them all with distinction. There might have been one or two imperfections here and there – the bassoon was much more settled for the repeat of the bassoon solo that opens The Rite of Spring – but this was a performance that all members of the orchestra should be proud of. Members and friends of the Stonnington community certainly were.
Heather Leviston reviewed “The Rite of Spring – 40th Anniversary Gala”, presented by Stonnington Symphony at the Malvern Town Hall on November 18, 2023.