A night of percussive passion…writes Fraser Beath McEwing

March 14, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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For concertgoers who like an adrenalin hit, the second concert in the SSO Master Series filled the bill. Four romantic composers poured on syrup, explosions and tail wind flying that delighted many, but left the classicists harrumphing into their post-concert coffee. Unashamedly, I fell into the delighted class – without being totally convinced by all the offerings, however.

The program opened with a seldom-heard piece by Dvorak, his concert overture, Othello. Rather than try to chronologically follow the ups and downs of the Moor of Venice, the music expresses passion and jealousy in equal portions. The scoring is mainstream Dvorak, with clear-cut modules in sharp parcels of brass, purposeful percussion and appealing melodies.

The piece begins with almost tippy-toe modal strings. Desdemona is about to go to sleep, but the mood is soon interrupted by Othello’s jealousy. And so the tragedy unfolds, producing a satisfying and likeable work.

Joyce Yang

Joyce Yang


Charles Olivieri-Munroe

With the concert launched, it was time for a performance from the furniture removalists as they made room for the Steinway Model D and young Korean pianist, Joyce Yang.  She wore a stunning strapless evening gown that gave the impression it was made from shredded metal. From the moment she sat down to play the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto she owned it, and was able extract some new colours from this overworked favourite of the concert circuit. While she has a powerful technique that stands up with the best performers of this work, she was able to gentle down passages to the finest pianissimo which, to me, was quite endearing. She never seemed to be in a hurry, especially in the first movement cadenza, which she turned into a self-contained solo piece.

But while Joyce won my wholehearted admiration and affection, I can’t say the same for the orchestral playing, or was it the conductor, Charles, Olivieri-Munroe who created some very unsure moments between soloist and orchestra? Being consummate professionals, they keep going and spackled over the holes in the first and third movements. Maybe in subsequent performances the teamwork will be better focused.

The audience forgave the family shortcomings and feverishly applauded Joyce Yang for her playing. I, for one, am looking forward to hearing her solo recital on Monday 18 March at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place.

We weren’t done with Tchaikovsky, who provided the opening piece of the second half, a tone poem called Fatum, in a first performance by the SSO. At a guess, I’d say the programmers wanted to utilise as much of the giant orchestra as possible, since it had to be assembled for the following Respighi piece anyway. Peter Ilyich obliged. In fact, one might be forgiven in thinking that Fatum was also chosen to blow out the cobwebs for Roman Festivals because there was plenty of high colour, high volume Tchaikovsky on offer. I’d not heard this piece performed before and I won’t miss it in the future, but if you like a kaleidoscope of Tchaikovsky orchestral effects, you might fall for Fatum.

More shifting of chairs and the addition of players enabled the formation of the biggest orchestra imaginable to tackle Roman Festivals. The organ loft lit up to play a part and at one stage three additional trumpeters blasted their notes from the top of the stairs behind the choir stalls. I won’t list all the additional instruments called in for Roman Festivals except to say that among them was a team of eight in the percussion section, a piano duet, a mandolin and lashings of extra strings.

When the trigger was pulled to start this mighty machine the sound was staggering. If you wanted to demonstrate the capacity of a symphony orchestra to the uninitiated, Respighi’s Roman Festivals would be the ideal piece.

I don’t mean to give the impression that this just an exercise in sound. It is primarily wonderful music. Respighi was a master orchestrator as demonstrated in his other famous program pieces like The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Roman Festivals is a four-part program tone picture bearing the titles ‘Circuses’, ‘The Jubilee’, ‘October Festival’, and ‘Epiphany’. It opens with a passage to shake the opera house foundations and finishes in the same way, with tenderness, frenzy, chaos and religious song intertwined along the way in the twenty- four-minute journey.

Conductor Olivieri-Munroe shone in Roman Festivals. Tall, dark and handsome in the style of a 40s movie star, (or an old Brylcream commercial, a wry colleague commented) he might well have had springs in his heels as he threw his body and flailing arms around to guide the giant orchestra in the performance of an extraordinary work.

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.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.



One Response to “A night of percussive passion…writes Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Yes, I can imagine the spirit of the night. Not much in the way of gentle chords, but melodic fever at the turn of each page…..
    Don’t know if I’d have coffee after that, maybe a quarter valium.

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