Renowned soloists, international and Australian, star in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Season Opening Gala. At this year’s concert there was a marvelous sense of what to look forward to. In summary: the orchestra presented Carl Vine’s Symphony No.1, Nelson Freire played a popular concerto, Stuart Skelton sang Beethoven, Wagner and Verdi, while Sir Andrew Davis conducted the ensemble. Friere and Skelton both delivered encores that referenced personal histories. The audience forgot convention and clapped after Freire’s first movement. The concert pamphlet, available online and at Hamer Hall, included recent program notes by tenor Robert Mitchell, succinctly introducing opera and song-cycle.
Reading between the lines, the concert program indicated an intent to display each soloist’s key works, while balancing critical and popular music for a Melbourne audience. The evening would begin with Microsymphony, a ten-minute work scheduled as a prelude and historical counterpoint to the peerless Emperor. A requisite interval would be followed by orchestral music and song, representing three exemplar Romantic compositions chronologically, from 1809 to 1887. Overall, it was to be a performance steeped in contemporary, period, and voice repertoire.
Microsymphony is a one-movement piece which is expansive in sound, yet pocket-sized, like a Dutch miniature painting. It introduces a motif that transforms in chord and rhythm, becoming a movement that alternates tempo and features of a complete symphony. The result is strangely familiar, for its contemporary vocabulary is reminiscent of known work. Vine is the present composer-in-residence at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with whom he premiered the work in 1995. By featuring his work upfront, the company is demonstrating its commitment to contemporary Australian music.
Photo: Decca/Nelson Freire
The mood of Vine’s experimental composition is in sharp contrast to the nobility of the subsequent concerto. Nonetheless, under Davis’s baton, the orchestra transitions to match Freire’s masterful delivery of Beethoven’s fifth and final piano concerto. With a first movement twice the length of the preceding microsymphony, it seemed apt for the audience to applaud. Brazilian-born Freire first performed Emperor at the prodigious age of twelve, which won him a grant to Vienna, that started his lifelong vocation with piano. He plays like a man enchanted, at moments closing his eyes even as his fingers move deftly across keys. Then, Freire performs the encore “Organ Prelude in G Minor” from long association, only recently recorded in his first Bach studio disc.
What an amazing coup for the MSO to have secured Sydney lad Stuart Skelton, ahead of his upcoming parts at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He will act as Siegmund in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring), and take the eponymous lead in Verdi’s Otello. Providing a preview of his Met roles, Skelton sings an aria from each character. For Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, Skelton reprises a role from the 2017 BBC Proms. This evening, his encore song is “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (The Land of Smiles) which he notably performed sans rehearsal, when collecting his 2014 International Opera Award. Skelton’s heldentenor timbre is richly commanding, well-suited to heroic voice.
Photo: MSO/Sir Andrew Davis
It is his fifth year as MSO chief conductor for Sir Andrew Davis, his first program with Freire, and his third with Skelton. Turning around the traditional remove of conductors, Davis is keen to engage with the audience, when describing scenes for Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. He then highlights Verdi’s rarely-performed Ballabile (Otello) by recounting the Paris Opera requirement that its operas must include a ballet sequence. There is real warmth between him and the soloists, especially Skelton; Davis also displays a surfeit of enthusiasm in conducting his orchestra.
This was a program to intrigue regular listeners and invite new audiences, juxtaposing in one evening unexpected music with establishment favourites. As a motif of the 2018 season, it succeeds.
Maloti writes about art and books.
Sir Andrew Davis and Stuart Skelton next perform with the MSO in The Dream of Gerontius on March 8,9, and 10. Davis and the MSO present Die Walküre Act 1 on August 25. Davis and the MSO will then present the world premiere of Carl Vine’s Symphony No.8 on August 30. All at Hamer Hall, 100 St Kilda Road. The venue is accessible.