For those concertgoers who may have been introduced to the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra for the first time last Friday night, the Brahms Violin Concerto was a fitting event to get the ball rolling.
Stefan Jackiw. Photo supplied
The TSO, led by conductor Andrew Gourlay, presented a program packed with a variety of compositional and performance styles. The title of the concert itself was ‘Brahms Violin Concerto’, and we saw a capable young performer lead us through this work after interval. But first, we began the evening with Dvořák’s Serenade in D Minor, Op. 44 B. 77.
The double reed instruments were already on stage, positioned amongst a small set-up of chairs for this ensemble of relatively few players. When the musicians arrived, they gave a pre-concert bow, which struck me as unusual for the TSO. Before their first notes sounded, an eerie whistle of wind fell across the concert hall (of course, the source was likely a vacuum generated by the side doors; but it certainly had the concert hall muttering and some players glancing around in amusement).
The Dvořák started with the feel of a relic from centuries ago (as, I suppose, it was); in the program notes, Anthony Cane explained that this Moderato quasi marcia was something of an arrival march, which may explain its rigidity. However, there were a few occurring issues that prevented this work from shining at its best, despite the potential for the players to present it as such.
The most prominent was the instrumentation and consequent lack of responsiveness in the hall. I could hear efforts of dynamics, but the sound that was ultimately delivered to my ears felt oddly washy, with some instruments lost altogether. It was particularly difficult to hear the two string instruments on stage – cello and double bass – which was unfortunate, as they appeared not to contribute to other concerns around them, such as a few mismatched call-and-response moments and intonation.
Nonetheless, they did a fine job to navigate the hall’s acoustic, and in all, it was still a pleasant and enjoyable work. I would be surprised if many others in the audience were bothered by (or even noticed) this at all.
Between the Dvořák and the following Kodály, Dances of Galanta, I could hear some of the players warming up backstage while a conductor’s podium, and many more chairs, were added to the floor. It was a big change in set-up and in performance – none of the previous concerns persisted in this exciting 20th Century work.
The set of dances provided as much variety as one might argue possible in a single work: it ranged from calming to charming; with virtuosic solos and broad romantic themes alike. In one way, it functioned as a case study that revealed the versatility of the orchestra and its individual sections. As I am not as familiar with the works of Kodály as I am Dvořák and Brahms, this proved a stimulating change of pace. Even Gourlay appeared to dance along with the composer’s themes, and drew from the orchestra a wide range of expression – from musical themes to dynamics and approach.
Brahms’ Violin Concerto was the post-interval feature, and young violinist Stefan Jackiw was our star. The young artist entered the stage in what appeared to be skinny jeans or chinos, a casual black shirt, and patent leather shoes. When he stood with no sheet music before him, an audience member behind me whispered: “Give the poor kid a seat”. But despite the youthful appearance of this soloist, Jackiw certainly didn’t need any performance aid – he flew through the concerto with academic precision.
It was at times a struggle to hear him play, as his violin sounded as though it lacked resonance. But as the piece progressed, it became easier to hear his confident and expressive delivery. He also stood further and further back, physically sinking into the orchestra. This may have indicated that he instinctively approached the orchestra as a team, in which he was one collaborative part; or that he valued communication with the conductor, perhaps. Either way, it was a pleasure to listen to a performer who seemed to give it everything he had, and succeed in doing so.
After the Brahms (and a lengthy and well-deserved ovation), Jackiw surprised us with a personal address to the audience, in which he praised Tasmania’s countryside and food (also well deserved, if I do say so). But he then introduced an encore – JS Bach’s Sonata in C Major, Largo. It was a clever choice – he revealed the raw sound of his instrument and playing as he’d intended it to project, despite the earlier bouts of dampened acoustic. He exhibited strong musicality in the absence of vibrato, and it was a truly tender way to finish what turned out to be a musically fruitful evening.