Federation Concert Hall, Hobart
December 9, 2017

Saturday-night Vaughan Williams wrapped up a strong 2017 season for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Without dwelling on achievements as obvious as the Helpmann Award win for its Tristan und Isolde, the TSO has hosted some outstanding events in idyllic Tasmanian venues – branching out into locations such as Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, and the Hobart Brewing Company’s Red Shed for micro-orchestra concerts known as Live Sessions. Through these intimate new performance experiences, we were introduced more personally to concertmaster Emma McGrath – now a delight to watch as our soloist in this starkly beautiful end to the year: The Lark Ascending.

I’d been eagerly awaiting this performance for months – as had hundreds of other Tasmanians who attended the booked-out Federation Concert Hall. I was seated in the balcony, overlooking a stripped-back TSO for the first work on the programme, Beethoven’s Symphony No 4.

In order to reach the titular Vaughan Williams, this symphony did seem a bit of an effort as it offered a relatively low-impact opening. The opening Adagio – Allegro vivace was slow to draw us in after kicking off with a long – and wavering – tone. It set us up for a metronomic plod that outdid the following Adagio. While conductor Marko Letonja’s gestures appeared far from forceful, it was not so much an issue of performance as it was of unfortunate programmatic choice. Nevertheless, we heard increasing dynamic energy in the Menuetto (Allegro vivace) – Trio (Un poco meno allegro); and were enlivened by the arrival of the Allegro ma non troppo – though, these qualities should have engrossed us from the outset. The choice to situate this symphony first on this specific programme placed it as a hurdle that needed to be overcome to get to the Lark – regardless of its quality.

Emma McGrath, Tasmanian Symphony OrchestraTasmanian Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Emma McGrath.

And this was never more evident than in the arrival of the Vaughan Williams itself: even its gentle bed of harmonies that heralded the soloist’s entry were exploding with presence and mood. Forgoing her role as concertmaster for the night, McGrath took to the stage and from her violin emerged an exquisite and transient statement. McGrath’s timbre was predominantly bright, but not restrictive: her range of expression was free-flowing across the instrument and the tone varied, but always encompassing the feeling of being uplifted – or even simply lifted above. As the work progressed, its understated narrative unravelled into deeper beauty: Letonja’s reservedness served us well in this work, which needed little embellishment and simply was. From up in the balcony, it was a little harder to hear than usual – but rather than detract from the experience this somehow added a nostalgic distance to the song-like call of the Lark.

After interval we were treated to another symphony, which should perhaps have been placed at the opening: Brahms’ Symphony No 4. Everything I’d longed for in the Beethoven had been fulfilled by the Brahms, and its presence was not only enhanced by a larger-sized orchestra but through the presentation of this music. Its Andante Moderato was stirring and full. The Allegro giocoso revealed moments within the orchestra that were not as reliably tight as usual, but nothing to be concerned with – the motive was apparent and carried us along. The Allegro energico e passionato movement honoured its namesake – Letonja was at his most uninhibited and at one point had placed down his baton and conducted the orchestra with hands alone. After the event, he gave the audience a festive farewell address – indeed, I’d love to have heard more from him throughout the year. With such a substantial following of loyal concertgoers, it would be a treat to hear more of the human bringing us such fine music throughout the TSO seasons.