Two bouncing Czechs and a spot of fiddling…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

June 4, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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One of the finest of Dvorak’s symphonies, along with two pieces from Smetana’s popular set of tone poems provided safe and enjoyable bookends to an ear-challenging contemporary violin concerto at the Sydney Opera House Master Series last night.

David Robertson  Photo: Ken Butti

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

Opening the concert with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor was like sitting dinner guests immediately down to the main course, and may have indicated some head scratching in the programming department. Be that as it may, Dvorak’s seventh shows him at his best as he responded to the inspiration of Brahms’ recently composed third symphony. Even though Dvorak’s ninth (‘goin’ home’ – oboe) tops the popularity charts, the seventh has more of a classical symphonic form to it.

Like most of Dvorak’s music, the seventh is structurally satisfying. Its components all sound as though they belong together. It begins with a restless swirling in the strings until it breaks into the sunlight and gets on with full-blooded romantic drama. Although not program music, it invariably creates scenes in the mind of the listener, sometimes sounding like a sophisticated film score.

The second movement, marked poco adagio, did it for me, with its wide melodic sweeps and deeply rich harmonies. The third and fourth movements were played without a break, beginning with a dance motif that had conductor David Robertson clearing the deck of his podium as he leaped from one side to the other. You’ve got to hand it to the man; he is an enthusiast and shows it. That may be one reason why he seems to be able to lift the orchestra’s pulse.

During interval the stage filled with instruments up to pussy’s bow. Two harps appeared, one on either side of the orchestra, while other instrument groups, such as the cellos, were enhanced by players from the reserve bench. Obviously, we were in for a grand sound.

The two harps opened the account for Smetana’s Ma vlast; Vysehrad (My Country: The High Castle) and led to the statement of the theme that runs through this familiar tone poem. It is one of six that make up Ma vlast, capturing, in music, the essence of Czechoslovakia, certainly as it was prior to the split in 1993, anyway The enhanced orchestra came into its own with massive statements, seeming to go well beyond the musical description of a castle sitting high on a rock in the Vltava river.

Most of the orchestra was retained for Steven Mackey’s

Anthony Marwood

Anthony Marwood

Beautiful Passing – Violin Concerto, with soloist, London-born Anthony Marwood. This was a strange, but at times endearing work with the lofty Marwood extracting violin sounds and displaying technical mastery that was often unbelievable. There were also unpredictable eruptions from the orchestra as it did battle with the solo violin, especially in the first half of the concerto. The trombone players may well have needed lung transplants after blowing some notes that threatened to rip a hole the space/time continuum. But after a lengthy, extraordinarily demanding violin cadenza, the two warring parties buried the hatchet and joined to produce a soulful and beautiful finale that I’d like to hear again.

Although Mackey’s program notes were a little wacky, they did explain that the piece was a dedication to his mother who, anticipating her death, wanted people to know that she’d had ‘a beautiful passing’. Mackey himself was in the house and appeared on stage amid polite, but hardly hysterical applause.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Keeping to the meal analogy, it was time for a desert that would send everybody home with a sweet hum in their heads. Out came one of the most loved pieces of the orchestral repertoire, again from Ma vlast. Vltava, or The Moldau, is another tone poem from Smetana’s set, this time tracing the famous Czech river from its source. It is a piece your mind and your heart want to hear and, I think, the orchestra wanted to play. David Robertson upped the podium choreography too, with some robot-parody moves and an unexpected squat as though he was dodging a flying tomato.

I jest of course; there were no tomatoes. This was a first class concert, with the SSO in top form, conducted by a musician of exceptional calibre who is not afraid to take a few risks.

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.

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