An evening with Sir Andrew Davis, Anne-Sophie Mutter and the MSO

June 25, 2018 by Ron Jontof-Hutter
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The Melbourne Symphony orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis played a memorable concert on Saturday evening…writes Ron Jontof-Hutter.

Ron Jontof-Hutter

The program consisted of works that are not often played, with the exception of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto which was both refreshing and educative.

The evening commenced with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Fairy’s Kiss,” based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Commissioned in Paris by Ida Rubinstein in 1928, it marked the end of Stravinsky’s relationship with Diaghilev and his fabulous Ballets Russes, which was instrumental in establishing Stravinsky’s western career.

Utilising materiel from early Tchaikovsky songs and piano pieces, Stravinsky pays homage to his predecessor, recalling fond childhood memories of attending  concerts of Tchaikovsky’s music at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg with his father Feodor ,who apparently  was also a coffin bearer at the great man’s funeral.

Like Tchaikovsky who did not identify with the nationalist “The Five, “but looking more towards the cosmopolitan west , Stravinsky pays tribute to his hero from the start of the Divertimento with its Tchaikovskyesque style interspersed with “classic” Stravinsky. Sir Andrew elegantly brought out the best of the MSO with beautiful solos and ensemble work, reflected in the exposed soft spiccati in the upper strings, highlighting a graceful performance that delighted the audience.

The star of the evening was undoubtedly Anne –Sophie Mutter. Generously supported by Marc Besen and Eva Besen, Ms Mutter is the MSO 2018 Soloist in Residence.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto had a troubled history. He was infatuated with a violin student, Josef Kotek at the Moscow Conservatorium, who in turn became infatuated with another (female)student. Soon thereafter, a disappointed Tchaikovsky proposed to Antonina Milyukova. Their marriage lasted two months. Nonetheless Tchaikovsky and Kotek remained friends with the latter assisting in the development of the concerto. Initially dedicated to the celebrated virtuoso Leopold Auer, who considered it “unplayable,” Adolf Brodsky  actually premiered it in Vienna in 1881 where the much feared critic Hanslick trashed it, referring to the concerto as “ vulgar… the smell of vodka … and music that stinks to the ear.”

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Sir Andrew Davis                               Photo: Dan Aulsebrook

Anne Sophie-Mutter’s performance was more characteristic of a rich and elegant glass of red, depicting many diverse flavours that were a delight to both the palate and olfactory system!

Her playing exudes power with warmth and passion which she achieves with intelligent use and fullness of the bow to great effect. Her glissandi, prominent at the start are tasteful, enhancing the character of the piece that Tchaikovsky must surely have intended.

Interestingly, Ms Mutter chose to play the second movement with a mute. This was very effective in bringing out the most of the Canzonetta’s song- like quality while blending beautifully with the woodwind integrating the right balance. The sotto voce quality of the opening melody was enhanced by the very effective use of non-vibrato playing, followed by a more intense vibrato, yet always maintaining the balance of power and restraint.

Following the beautiful Canzonetta, Ms Mutter played the final “allegro vivacissimo” movement, emphasising its “vivacissimo” character at an unusually blistering speed and pace with the orchestra in tow.

Anne-Sophie Mutter connected very well with the MSO and audience. She received a standing ovation from an appreciative full house and graciously thanked Mr and Mrs Besen for their philanthropic support. Her warmth and appreciation of the Melbourne audience was certainly mutual.

After the interval ,Ms Mutter played John Williams’ “Markings” for violin, strings and harp. Written for her in 2017, Williams, famous for Oscar nominated film music, departs from his usual melodious tunes and here writes in an atonal style that is both intimate and extroverted. “Markings” brings out diverse and extreme sonorities from the g-string and ending at the violin’s highest range which Ms Mutter sustained with power and richness in sound to its conclusion.

Anne-Sophie Mutter is not only a wonderful ambassador for Germany but also for music. She has an interest in promoting newly commissioned pieces and also engages with aspiring violinists through master classes. Her visit to Australia has certainly been inspiring in various ways, hopefully to be repeated.

The evening ended with Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony, “Sinfonia espansiva.”

Written in 1911, the year of his violin concerto, the death of his contemporary Mahler, and with Elgar establishing himself in England, Nielsen’s Third Symphony became his first European success  with him conducting the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

The first movement starts dramatically with twenty-six Morse code like strikes, which he described as a “gust of energy and life affirmation blown out into the wide world.” Nielsen utilised the Brahms symphonic forms especially the developing variations principle whereby an original seed theme develops into variations and new motifs.

The second movement, Andante pastorale, recalls  Nielsen’s childhood on the Danish rural island of Funen. Idyllic and ambivalent with minor and major keys, the Andante includes a baritone and soprano in orchestral roles singing a wordless vocalise. Nielsen described this movement as the mood that one could imagine in Paradise before the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Nielsen created this rich and ethereal movement to reflect impressionism in painting.  In contrast to the first movement with its energy and  inconclusive resolution, the second movement is sublime, tender and beautiful. It was played at Nielsen’s funeral.

The third movement depicts the conflict between good and evil while the final movement is a hymn to work, happiness and daily activities. Nielsen was prone to bouts of depression including diminished energy. However, he insisted that this symphony was not programmatic, but a private matter between the music and himself.

Nielsen’s other contemporary Sigmund Freud, stated that a healthy life consisted of a balance between “lieben und arbeiten, (loving and working) which is what Nielsen appears to express in this hymn.

Nielsen said that “music is the sound of life.” He was also an important bridge between romantic and post romantic music which would set the stage for Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School.

Sir Andrew conducted this symphony with insight and sensitivity, dispensing with the baton. Engaging deeply with the orchestra, paying attention to detail, nuances and dynamics, Sir Andrew  continued to bring out the best of the MSO which the audience and musicians clearly enjoyed and appreciated.

Nielsen’s compositions are not often played outside Denmark as they deserve to be. Exposing audiences to Nielsen and the other “unconventional” pieces in this concert, is both artistically desirable and educative for which the MSO deserves credit.

Ron Jontof-Hutter is the author of the satirical novel, “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist.”

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