Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
September 21, 2018

The city is electric with anticipation as the remains of a glorious spring afternoon dissolve in twilight and 95,000 excited Melbournians stream into the MCG (and the rest of them into a variety of devices). It’s been the hot topic all week: two of the old guard, Collingwood and Richmond, will tonight battle for a spot in next week’s Grand Final. A short walk away, a considerably more modest cohort is nevertheless filling Hamer Hall for a trip to the New World via old Europe, and it too promises to be a thrilling ride.

A glistening burst of colour to open: the overture to Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride (1866), a Czech village affectionately filmed by a musical camera in which festive bustle, local industry and hints of folk dances vie for musical attention. The MSO’s Cybec Assistant Conductor Tianyi Lu elicits an impressive and sprightly performance, with great clarity and distinction of parts, particularly throughout the intricate string passages. Lu, 28, is a flautist and composer whose broad musical interests encompass baroque flute and electronics, and her conducting style is characterised by a lively openness of spirit. There is no doubt that we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more of Tianyi Lu in coming years.

Xian Zhang, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Two monumental 19th-century works follow, with conductor Xian Zhang at the helm of the MSO. Zhang is Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, and tonight she begins with Robert Schumann’s sole Piano Concerto, in A Minor, Op. 54. Completed in 1845 after some struggle, this work was a lovingly-penned vehicle for his extraordinary wife Clara (Wieck), one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century and a composer and teacher of considerable renown. So formidable was her musical reputation that after Robert’s tragic death in an asylum in 1856, she was able to support herself and their seven surviving children through concert performances and teaching. This special, mysterious work, written by Robert with both their enduring love and Clara’s virtuosity in mind, is an intimate dialogue between piano and orchestra requiring as much acute sensitivity as technical prowess.

English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, 26, displayed the eye-watering pianism for which he has become renowned since winning the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of 11. As he manoeuvred through shifts of emotional intensity with dexterity, Zhang’s expert guidance ensured that sufficient space was always available for the piano’s melodic expression to breathe without being overpowered. An enthusiastic reception was rewarded with a short encore from Grosvenor; the Etude in A Flat Op. 7 No 11 by Moritz Moszkowski. Simultaneously delicate and virtuosic, its chromatic hand-crossings were delivered with silken smoothness by Grosvenor, closing the first half of the program beautifully.

But just as the night would emphatically belong to Collingwood up the road at the MCG, the hands-down winner at Hamer Hall tonight was Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No 9 in E Minor, From the New World. A musical bulletin to the old world from the new, Dvořák’s most famous symphony was written while he, his wife, and two of their six children were resident in New York while he took up a position as director of Manhattan’s National Conservatory of Music. The premiere on December 16, 1893 at Carnegie Hall was a smash and it has rightly remained incredibly popular with concert audiences. Its distinctive sonic landscape is strongly influenced by the pentatonic attributes of spirituals and Native American traditions, and so jam-packed is it with infectious tunes that other compositional luminaries, including John Williams and Serge Gainsbourg, have seen fit to reconfigure motifs as bases for extraordinary new works. From the opening bars, Xian Zhang’s complete command of the New World was evident as she guided the MSO, without a score, through a thrilling account of its toe-tappingly propulsive rhythms, irresistible melodies and the sweeping lyricism of the Largo. Clearly having a ball, Zhang grinned broadly as she dipped and soared throughout a sharp and utterly assured performance that it was truly a pleasure to witness.


The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presents New World Symphony again at Hamer Hall on September 24

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine