A star-studded lineup in Australian composer Carl Vine, Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, Heldentenor Stuart Skelton and conductor Sir Andrew Davis assembled to launch the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2018 season, presenting a festive if somewhat eccentric program of both traditional and unfamiliar selections across the symphonic, concerto and operatic repertory.

Stuart Skelton
© Simon Fernandez

Vine is best known in the local scene as artistic director of the highly successful chamber music presenter Musica Viva, but also to dancers and musicians (especially pianists) as a globally recognised composer, and perhaps to more specialised trivia experts as the arranger-composer of music for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His deft command of ‘high’ and ‘low’ contemporary idiom, which has allowed such a diverse portfolio of creative activity, is very much apparent in his Microsymphony, which began the evening’s concert. It is neoclassical in form, truncating the traditional three- or four-movement form into a continuous, twelve minute structure, and eclectic in style, with plenty of nods to the pulsations of post-minimalism. There is something cheeky in the notion of a symphony that sticks to its boundaries, a sort of anti-Mahler (whose world-encompassing Ninth Symphony is programmed by the MSO in a fortnight), and the work’s overall gesture therefore remains very much that of a concert overture, though Vine makes sure to temper unbridled festivity with an unexpectedly reflective, but nevertheless positive, conclusion. The performance of the Microsymphony celebrates the beginning of Vine’s year as resident composer with the MSO, and their collaboration towards world premieres later in the year will not doubt promise further wonderful symphonic creations.

Nelson Freire is lauded as a connoisseur’s pianist, a no-frills master of his craft in a modern world of hot-shot, rockstar youngsters. This image encapsulates not only his playing but his entire stage presence, which is disarming in its amiability. Does this present an interpretative issue in delivering a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, one of many concertos that calls for the pianist’s physical and figurative conquering of his or her instrument? Not necessarily, though I would have appreciated greater and more spontaneous contrast of the dynamic and emotional extremes – a little more fire and fury from this well-tempered soloist, particularly in the vast, relatively dry acoustics of Hamer Hall that do not project the piano as well as the orchestra. Freire’s understanding of the structural challenges was well evident, and he navigated through the tempo and metric shifts of the first movement with a rarely-heard coherency and unity of concept, while his performance aesthetic arguably shone best in the slow movement Adagio un poco mosso, which was interpreted with beautiful calmness. 

Stuart Skelton has been a Melbourne regular and continues to thrill audiences with his expressive commitment from the very first breath, in tonight’s case, the captivating crescendo on the first syllable of “Gott! Welch Dunkel hier” from Beethoven’s Fidelio. Subsequent excerpts from Wagner’s Die Walküre and Verdi’s Otello were a satisfying display of Skelton’s complete range from exultant fortes to gripping pianissimo utterances, each preceded by the orchestra with music from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and the ballet music from Verdi’s Otello respectively. The tight ensemble and visceral energy here – the augmented brass section are to be particularly commended – was disparate to the somewhat milder conviction in the Vine performed earlier, reflecting a continuing struggle for Australian orchestral works (even within Australia) to receive consistent, genuinely advocative performances, perhaps due to their inherent difficulties and the inevitable limitations of rehearsal time. Armchair quibbles aside, the MSO’s performance tonight was outstanding, and sets a demanding standard for the remainder of the year.