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St John’s Smith Square, London
December 9, 2014
The Tait Memorial trust do so much for Australian musicians training and working in London that it makes sense to showcase their work at a winter prom. St John’s Smith Square is an ideal central London concert venue and a great opportunity for all involved to add to their public exposure. Hiring the lively and innovative Australian conductor Kelly Lovelady was a clever idea and she held a diverse evening together with her wide-ranging musical skills. She is the type of conductor that is obviously fun to work with and someone who encourages excellent team work and commitment.
For 22 years the Tait Memorial Fund has been engaging with the Australian community and its friends in London. Every year they support talented Australian musicians (and now dancers) with scholarships and awards to help finance their ongoing studies in London.
The prom held many surprises with some wonderful music making, but on these showcase evenings getting the presentation style right can be difficult. There is a balance between promoting the young players (and in this concert some dancers), advertising the work of the foundation and giving patrons and board members a good evening out to thank them for their support. Sadly the balance was not quite right with some aspects of presentation not matching the quality of music. However, the work they do in terms of giving scholarships is highly commendable and the audience was certainly able to witness first hand some impressive Australian talent.
The orchestra had been specially put together for the evening and mainly consisted of Australian postgraduate students studying in London, plus some who had already turned professional. For a scratch orchestra they worked well together and had notable brass and woodwind sections with just a few weaknesses in some of the strings. They really came into their own during a premiere from the young Australian composer Kevin Penkin, where they displayed a distinctive feel for his composing style. In a busy program of vocal and instrumental soloists it would take too long to review every short piece so I’ll concentrate on the stand out moments of the evening which delighted or surprised.
As expected the pianist Jayson Gillham got things started in style with Percy Grainger’s Handel in the Strand followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 14. Gillham started his career on the international stage after winning the 2014 Montreal International Musical Competition. He has an easy and fluid technical style supported by great musical sensitivity. You sense a growing maturity and confidence in his concert persona. This is a young man really going places and concert promoters should be falling over themselves to get him back to Australia as often as possible.
It was interesting to hear violinist Xenia Deviatkina-Loh perform Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. This beautiful piece is deceptively difficult and requires immense technical skill as a building block before any artistic interpretation is possible. Her stage presence did not bode well and it was difficult to believe she was a postgraduate student with an impressive performing history. Once started, it was a different story with some superb playing and a moving interpretation of the piece. With some coaching on performance persona, Deviatkina-Loh could go far.
Giovanni Sollima’s Vioncelles, Vibrez! has rather been hijacked by the two flamboyant young cellists Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser who became a YouTube sensation with their playing of this piece. A hard act for Australians Yellan He and Adam Szabo to follow. It was pleasing to witness their high standard of technical mastery and occasional deep felt emotional resonance. However, they needed to connect more as they tended to play as two soloists rather than an engaged partnership. Experience and growing musical maturity will help these talented players in future. Evident in this piece (as in everything during the concert) was Kelly Lovelady’s ability to fine-tune an orchestra like a well-trained piano accompanist, following her soloists with great skill and offering support at every turn.
It is always interesting (and sometimes disappointing) when new music is premiered at concerts. The work of Kevin Penkin was unknown to me but listening to extracts on his website whet the appetite. Penkin is lucky enough to make some money composing for video games so you could claim he is partly following in the footsteps of composers such as Erich Korngold. The premiere for this Tait Winter Prom was called Changing Feet and was about his emotional and musical reaction to living in Perth and living in London. Penkin also writes electronic music but, as in this piece, also writes for classical orchestral players. The sounds he created were rich and engaging. They were sensitive, fresh, with a deep knowledge of the range and possibility of each instrument. It was also melodic and accessible. You could hear Australian bird song, Aboriginal culture and the contrast found in a busy world city like London. It may have been fanciful but I am sure we heard London starlings roosting in Leicester Square above the traffic noise.
One of the standout soloists of the evening was the solo flautist Nicola Crowe who currently plays with the Southbank Sinfonia in London. Her playing was very impressive; technically fluent, emotionally nuanced and totally secure. She really got under the skin of this new composition and I am sure Penkin was delighted to hear his piece come alive in her hands. In 2015 she will take up a Fellowship with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Make sure you catch one of her concerts.
The prom ended with the end of Act One of Puccini’s La Bohème. A fine romantic piece to stir the emotions and a chance to listen to some fine singing. Marlena Devoe (a New Zealand born Samoan) sang Mimì and was a last minute substitution for Lauren Fagan, called to go on at Covent Garden. With minimal rehearsal she melted into her role and sang gloriously. Her rich melodic tone, never strained, always fluid and focussed, wrapped its way around the hearts and ears of an attentive audience. She was ably supported by tenor Gerard Schneider and an ever versatile Kelly Lovelady conducting, ending the evening with warmth and musicality.