A flying start despite Covid: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

February 11, 2021 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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“What a privilege it is to make music again” violin soloist Daniel Rohn called to the Covid-thinned Town Hall audience last night before embarking on his stunning Bach encore.

Simone Young

This was the first SSO concert in 11 months. As such, this was a lovers’ reunion, reflected in how the orchestra played and the audience responded. 

Apart from two of the composers, it was also an all-Australian gig, with Simone Young conducting, Daniel Röhn as the Tchaikovsky violin soloist and the first offering of the “Fifty Fanfares Commission”, this one by Australian composer, 27-year-old Connor D’Netto.

While there is a surfeit of piano concertos, there are not nearly so many violin concertos. Many popular composers put down the pen after one or two. Although Tchaikovsky wrote only one, it shares top billing with those of Mendelsohn, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch. Before a cry of ‘what about?’ I should pay tribute to Paganini, Sibelius and Sainte-Saëns, along with some more recent composers.

The same could be said for virtuoso violinists – who are far outnumbered by virtuoso pianists. That places German-born and now Kiama resident Daniel Röhn in rare company. He was first up on the bill with the concerto.

Daniel Röhn

When Tchaikovsky wrote his Violin Concerto in D, Op.35 in 1878, it scared off most of the available solo fiddlers, who declared it too damn hard to play, until Leopold Damrocsch took his brave pills and premiered it in 1879. Today, violinists like Daniel Röhn take it in their stride. He comes from a long line of pivotal musicians and is now up there among today’s finest. While he has appeared as soloist with many leading orchestras and chamber groups, he is probably best known for his live performances and CD called The Kreisler Story, in which he plays the 1920s salon music with piano accompaniment which helped Fritz Kreisler to fame as performer and composer. Commentators have likened Röhn’s playing style as modelled on Kreisler’s era. He says “I found my own trademark style by listening to all the Kreislers and Heifetzs. One of my best teachers was my parents’ record cabinet.”

I’m not sure if it was the exuberance of the SSO members being let out to play or the superb acoustics of the Town Hall, or Simone Young’s inspired conducting, but magic abounded.

The concerto was a perfect combination of orchestra and soloist, both in top form. Having conducted a lot of opera, Young has an instinct for holding the orchestra back when the soloist is engaged. That gave Röhn space to project. His cadenza in the first movement was sizzling and the rest of his playing peerless. I hope he stays in Australia for a long time.

After intermission, which did could not offer bar service because of Covid, a teetotalled audience returned for Uncertain Planning by Connor D’Netto. Although endorsed by Simone Young, this is a piece that will take me some time to love. The beginning sounded like a farmer overwhelmed by a flock of birds and trying to scare them off with a shotgun. He succeeds, and the piece then pounces on every instrument in the orchestra to blast off like a Cape Canaveral rocket. I’d have to say it did generate some excitement and it was certainly original. Maybe I’m just not cut out for avant-garde musical adventures and when Connor D’Netto becomes famous I’ll eat crow.

Thence to the intended jewel in the crown, Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 in E minor Op.95. It is not always acknowledged that Dvorak was one of the most versatile composers of the 19th century with a vast output covering chamber music, opera and nine symphonies, all of them steeped in Bohemian romanticism. His last symphony, No. 9 ‘From the New World’ is not only his best-known work but also an enduring crowd-pleaser. It was inspired by a three-year stay in America (1892-95) where he was greatly taken by the culture of ‘the new world’ and Negro spirituals – especially evident in the second movement with the “going home” cor Anglaise solo that everybody waits for – and a few weep over. I nearly joined the weepers when ‘going home’ rose like cream from the cor Anglaise of Alexandre Oguey. Conducting scoreless, Simone Young’s tempi were exactly to my taste throughout the four movements, going from tender whispers to raging warfare – all in the right places. The performance gave me even greater respect for her conducting and endearing personality.

SSO in the Sydney Town Hall concert, 10 February 2021

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