A real treat for Elgar fans, or any dreamers of dreams, despite difficult acoustic.

Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne

May 25, 2014

Sunday evening at the Melbourne Town Hall housed the gargantuan efforts of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir, Melbourne University Choral Society and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic who all joined forces to present an evening of English symphonic choral music to a welcoming audience.

The program opened with Elgar’s lustrous Sea Pictures. Commissioned by the Norwich Festival in the year 1898, the work was written for the voice of the young contralto Clara Butt and premiered the following year. With the exception of the second poem, each movement is based upon ‘dramatic monologue’ poetry, where the scene is set and then the narrator wistfully reflects on changes or memories of the landscape. Melbourne contralto Liane Keegan was a remarkable soloist, in possession of a rich, claret tone. Her rendition of the third and fifth movements (Sabbath Morning at Sea, The Swimmer), were particular highlights, showcasing her dynamic power and a vocal range that never sacrificed consistency or quality of tone.

The problematic acoustic of the Melbourne Town Hall though was evident from the beginning of Sea Pictures and never really resolved itself through the course of the evening. The venue is very difficult for even the most established orchestra to achieve a clean, pristine sound and Elgar’s thick-harmonic writing features a resonant middle string sound. The combination sometimes caused a clotting of textures. In spite of this minor qualm, the orchestral achieved a wonderful blend the entire evening. Worthy of comment was the stunning work of the Principal Horn who played several exposed lines with elegance and subtlety.

Finishing the first half was Vaughan Williams' symphonic choral work Toward the Unknown Region, and this was the first chance to hear the impressive massed chorus. The work begins with a gentle statement from the orchestra, who are interrupted by an angelic chorus. This pattern of statement and answer continues, while the music swirls and spirals. The work builds in intensity and dynamic, before all proclaim the resounding final stanza. Congratulations are due to those who prepared the choirs, as their diction was superb. The chorus navigated some impressive soft entries with confidence and sang with a warm, lush blend of voices. The orchestra was in full flight, especially towards the end of the work, where the wind and brass sections really showed the extent of their dynamic capabilities, but never became brash or shrill.

The Music Makers was the final piece for the evening’s concert, and it was a particular treat to hear a rare performance of this massive piece. The work opened with the choristers eerily singing, "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamer of dreams", a wonderfully evocative phrase that Elgar returns to throughout the work. Andrew Wailes did well to direct such a mass of musicians, although some shifting tempos seemed to move with uncertainty, as though the orchestra had a greater sense of gravity than their conductor. Contralto Liane Keegan returned to sing the vocal solo and delivered it with poise and clarity. Most impressive was her performance during the finale, where it was clear she was a performer of experience, her upper range projecting through the orchestral and choral ensembles.

The concert by The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic was a real treat for any die-hard Elgar fan. Hopefully it won the orchestra and the English composer a few new supporters in the process.