Wednesday’s performance by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, entitled “Rising Star,” was the third in a series of four free concerts this year at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. For over fifty years, these annual free concerts have given audiences in Melbourne a unique opportunity to sample select works from the classical music repertoire in open air. More than 9,000 attended Wednesday’s concert alone, many bringing picnic boxes and sitting on the grass.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Sidney Myer Music Bowl, © David Simmonds 2009
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Sidney Myer Music Bowl,
© David Simmonds 2009

Conductor for the evening was 27-year-old Diego Matheuz, a graduate of the Venezuelan “El Sistema” education programme, with which fellow countryman Gustavo Dudamel was also involved early in his career. Energetic, with dashing good looks, Mr. Matheuz wowed the audience the moment he walked on to the stage.

Under the bright late-afternoon summer sun, the orchestra began with Dances of Galánta by Kodály, composed for the 80th anniversary of the Budapest Philharmonic Society in 1933. This group of five dances, inspired by the composer’s lifelong passion for studying Hungarian folk music, swings from one end of the rhythmic and melodic spectrum to the other. The rich sonority of the lower strings highlighted the doleful snivelling of the opening dance, and the higher strings displayed unbounded vigour in the breakneck speed of the swaggering later movements. However, the Eastern European ethnic rhythms were not articulated with quite the flair I expected. Also, the clarinet had difficulty breaking out from the heavy orchestral rendering to realise the prominence Kodály intended for it.

Composers who are virtuoso performers often write works which only they can play well. Although Liszt revised his Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat five times over almost a quarter-century, shortening it and making the piano solo part simpler, the work remains fiendishly challenging. In addition to demanding superb technical ability, it also encompasses a wide range of sensibilities, from contemplative wistfulness à la Chopin, to ambitious grandiloquence of Wagnerian proportions.

The soloist on Wednesday, Ian Munro, also a composer and pianist – and a native of Melbourne to boot – rose to the technical challenges well. Although sometimes lacking in clarity, with trills running into each other, he raced through the first movement without faltering. His handling of the second, slow movement was captivating. The assertive big brass in the final movement overwhelmed him somewhat, and left him panting in the bravura conclusion. The orchestra, on the other hand, was rather distracted in the strong opening bars of the first movement, but quickly regained confidence in making big strides that counterbalanced the flamboyance of the soloist. The tongue-in-cheek treatment of the scherzo-like third movement stood out in particular.

When the conductor ascended the podium again after the intermission, the sun had set. The darkness provided a fitting backdrop to the quiet opening of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 in E minor. By now, the clarinet had regained its composure and led the way. Mr Matheuz’s strong sense of direction moved the orchestra in a clear pattern of ebb and flow, nimbly skipping where necessary. A hauntingly beautiful opening theme by the horn in the second movement was soon taken up in turn by the clarinet, oboe, bassoon and lower strings. Much as the interpretation was sensitive, the element of cantabile was not quite there. A flash of horror rudely interrupted the reprise of the opening motif on strings, with the clarinet having the last word.

Tchaikovsky’s waltzes are usually smooth and elegant, like a sweet smell wafting into a room. The orchestra was a little too measured in the waltz of the third movement, rendering it overly stiff and formal. The final movement opened with a resolute repetition of the opening theme from the first movement, now taken up in full force by the strings. After being tossed about, beaten into shape and baked, it rose to a triumphant crescendo, with attendant brass in full blast. The doom and gloom of the first movement had been swept away by renewed confidence by the end.

Despite the occasional small flaws, Diego Matheuz showed great promise. The audience unequivocally gave him the thumbs up with animated and long applause. I can’t help thinking that the free concert won over many new converts to classical music, for which kudos goes to the organisers.

***11