A big night with the three Bees…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

November 30, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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I have a feeling that the SSO wanted its APT Master Series to finish the year on a high when it nudged its budget with a big orchestra, solo singers, a male chorus (on loan from the Australian Opera) and powered up the organ.

Last night’s concert offered something for everybody, with works by Brahms, Bach and Bartok. Between them, the three Bees provided rich contrasts, even though they were all dispensing various forms of despair.

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

Presented under the heading Bluebeard’s Castle, the concert was not all about Bartok. It began with one of Brahms’ most loved choral works, the Alto Rhapsody. This music carries a bit of love-baggage, which Brahms didn’t always feel comfortable about exposing. After pursuing Clara Schumann and losing her to Robert, Johannes developed a secret longing for her third, and prettiest daughter, Julie. When Julie married count Vittotio Amadeo Radicati di Marmorito (giving her a much fancier married name than Mrs Brahms) Johannes presented her with the passion-laced Alto Rhapsody as a wedding present. Some observes see it as a disguised, futile love-letter. Doubtless, Julie didn’t.

The Rhapsody is scored for male chorus, mezzo-soprano and orchestra. The soloist was Michelle DeYoung who strode onto the stage in a long, dark blue lace dress, her cascading blond hair well above that of David Robertson’s greying bob. Although singing doesn’t have a lot to do with appearance, in DeYoung’s case her height gave her commanding stage presence before she’d even opened her mouth. And when she did, her billowing, rich mezzo was pure magic. She held her own against the orchestra in what was the best live rendition of the Alto Rhapsody I’ve heard.

On to Bach, and one of the 200 cantatas he was obliged to write for his various church employers. He is credited with composing 1128 works overall, but it is likely that just as many have been lost. In addition to his astonishing output as a composer, Bach was an outstanding organist, instrument technician, violinist and teacher – and he still found time to make 20 babies with the first and second Mrs Bach. Through all this activity he never left his native Germany, but once walked 200 miles across it to hear famous organist, Buxtehude, play. He fitted everything into 65 years and died in 1750 of a stroke after an unsuccessful eye operation blinded him, but didn’t stop him composing.

In addition to a small Baroque size string orchestra, (only two bull fiddles) Bach’s Cantata BWV 82 calls for a baritone (David Greco) an oboist in good form (Diana Doherty) plus a chunky little organ continuo. Like many of Bach’s cantatas, the subject is far from cheerful; the protagonist continually tells us he longs for death. Having said that, this is music to quietly bathe in. Doherty’s oboe was a delight; she didn’t try to turn the piece into an oboe concerto while Greco’s voice was well suited to the solo role, which doesn’t call for heroics.

Fast forward to 1911 and we find Bela Bartok in similar mood, despairing that he will never find his true love as he turns to a legendary 1697 play by Charles Perrault and transforms it into a one-act opera, calling it Bluebeard’s Castle. Bartok’s version is not quite so bloodthirsty as the original where there is quite a bit of wife beheading, but it does depict Duke Bluebeard locking up successive wives in a dark, spooky castle while he goes in search of the ultimate one who will understand him without destroying either of them.

While much of Bartok’s music leans into atonality, Bluebeard’s Castle is quite accessible to the unfamiliar listener – applying, I suspect, to much of the audience. Nonetheless, its identity themes are often harmonically disturbing. Admirably, Bartok pays special attention to toning the orchestra down at appropriate times to avoid drowning out the soloists or the male chorus.

The opera opened with a spoken prologue by actor Don Hany in Hungarian, plus English surtitles flashed on to a screen. Then the music slowly uncurls from silence to begin a breathtaking performance – which the uninitiated might dismiss because “I don’t like Bartok.” How wrong they’d be.

Duke Bluebeard – bass John Relyea – entered the imaginary castle with his latest bride, Judith, to begin the horrific drama of unlocking seven doors that reveal what Bluebeard has been up to. Judith was sung by reappearing mezzo Michelle DeYoung, this time in full-length black glitter. She sounded even better than she had previously, while Relyea’s bass was enthralling with its richness and power. He looked the part too, although I would have liked a dab of blue on his beard. Between them, and supported by a massive, beautifully conducted orchestra (the bull fiddle count maxed out at eight) and the concert hall organ, Bluebeard’s Castle came alive, even though it used no staging except for some changes in the house lighting.

Before this concert I might have queried conductor David Robertson’s choice of Bluebeard’s Castle, but now I commend him for it.

SSO Opera House concert 29 November 2017

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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