The Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra is an integral member of the performing arts community in Melbourne. Its origins go back to 1906 under the direction of maestro Alberto Zelman Jnr. Ultimately, under the invitation of Sir Bernard Heinze, the professional members of this orchestra and others combined to form Australia’s first fully professional orchestra – the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
The Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra now comprises members from the ages of 12 to 91 under the very capable direction of Principal Conductor, Rick Prakhoff, and concertmaster, Susan Pierotti. It was immediately evident, throughout this concert, that all the orchestral musicians are proud members of this ensemble with a commitment to high standards and an awareness of their historical pedigree.
The first item was Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture Op. 72. The orchestra commenced somewhat tentatively with some missed pitching of the notes and some compromised tuning. In some ways this is reflected in the exposed writing of Beethoven’s score and the demands placed upon the musicians. Perhaps with a little more warming up, or readjustment of the program order, this may not have occurred. Nonetheless, the orchestra proceeded forth gathering strength after strength, clearly eliciting thematic passages, and concluding on a decisive note.
The second item was Margaret Sutherland’s Haunted Hills. This composition describes the settled, peaceful and aged imagery of the Australian landscape. Simultaneously, an underlying theme of despair, resentment, bewilderment, and anger pervades the entire composition. Margaret Sutherland was in fact referring to the plight of Australia’s indigenous community.
The Zelman Memorial Orchestra successfully negotiated the demands of this composition. Multiple tone colours and swirling textures pervaded throughout, alternating with brilliant and disruptive interjections from the brass and percussion sections. Brief moments of optimistic repose quickly subsided to the continuing and underlying turbulence of angst sustained throughout the string sections. Overall, it was a performance that displayed conviction and authority, reflecting upon current, salient and disturbing points of history.
The third item was Opal: Double Concerto for Horns and Orchestra,composed by May Lyon. The soloists were Nicolas Fleury and Rachel Shaw, both from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and both with impeccable credentials. This composition explores the radiant qualities of the opal gemstone and the process of its extraction from the earth. These radiant qualities were appropriately rendered by the two soloists. Clearly, both Nicolas Fleury and Rachel Shaw were at ease with this performance. The complexities of pitch control, expressive voicing, range of notes and tonal variety were performed with a relaxed assurance. May Lyon’s evocative composition extracted similar commentary from the orchestra, engaging extra percussive resources and mechanistic polyrhythms. The level of commitment from the orchestra to this contemporary composition was impressive.
The final item was the Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68by Johannes Brahms. This symphony, in four movements, commenced with a sense of determination and conviction that was unwavering throughout. All the principal themes from movement to movement were clearly announced by the principal members of each section within the orchestra.
Similarly, it was refreshing to hear a very well-tuned set of timpani so succinctly and emphatically performed within the timbre of the orchestra. The drive and drama of this composition in the final movement was magnified further by the decisive control of these timpani. Finally, throughout this performance, there was a wonderful sense of balance, enthusiasm, commitment, and cohesion that created a uniformity of direction towards the triumphant closure, so capably directed by Rick Prakhoff. The audience applause was enthusiastic drawing a curtain call, sectional acknowledgements, and the presentation of gifts.
I must make acknowledgements to this orchestra of dedicated musicians and the role that they fulfil within Melbourne. It is highly commendable that the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra supports Australian composers and performers whilst sustaining its heritage and maintaining the future of classical and contemporary music. It also quite unique and very much appreciated that hot foods, coffee, tea and biscuits are offered at interval – particularly in the height of a cold winter!
Mark Dipnall reviewed “Horns a Plenty”, presented by the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra at Methodist Ladies College on June 17, 2023.