Unable to present its Vice-Chancellor’s Concert Series last year due to the COVID lockdown, the University of Queensland relaunched its 250th Beethoven birthday celebration with a long-awaited performance of his famous ninth Symphony. Universally regarded as his greatest work, with its stunning fourth movement, the Ode to Joy, this Symphony has come to symbolise unity and peace across many significant world events, most notably being played at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Beethoven also defied convention by altering the order of the scherzo and adagio movements and introducing a vocal component. While this is a mammoth work to undertake for any orchestra, it is also a perfect choice at this time, with its “declaration of universal brotherhood” and a finale that inspires us to look to a brighter future. This monumental work is moreover an even greater achievement given it was composed when the composer was already profoundly deaf.
Dane Lam conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 for the University of Queensland’s Vice-Chancellor’s concert series. Photograph © 2021 The University of Queensland
Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten provided a short prelude to the main work. This ravishing eulogy to Britten, scored simply for strings and a solitary tubular bell, proved a perfect introduction to the concert and the symphony that was to follow. The haunting, repetitive bell, gradually gathering speed and urgency, was beautifully played by timpanist Emily Moolenschot. The tremolo violins that commenced the piece, slowing building in intensity, were well controlled as both violas and darker strings gradually started their own melodic journeys. Conductor Dane Lam’s strong and precise beat kept the individual string sections tight with each building to a fortissimo before the abrupt ending of all-encompassing sound. However, the breathtaking silence, when the strings cease to play and we hear the final soft bell, could have been held longer before we moved straight on to the Beethoven. This moment of silence is so critical in conveying the aching emptiness of the work and it was unfortunately lost here.
The Symphony started immediately, Lam, the new Conductor and Director of the University of Queensland Symphony Orchestra (UQSO), appearing eager to get straight to the main work. He attacked the fiery Allegro movement with alacrity. Lam can be a powerhouse on the podium, his energetic conducting style allowing him to stir up his orchestral forces to greater heights, though his tempi can sometimes be too fast, seeming to lack an equal energy in the slower passages. This wonderful movement however offered some colourful string playing, with very strong woodwind and horn sections, the latter assisted by key players from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Additionally, the brass and percussion gave solid support with an extensive and well-played coda.
The second scherzo movement opened with some very fast tempi indeed and three powerful brass chords that repeated the opening melodic theme of the Allegro. The rhythm became quite bright and breezy with a recapitulation of the opening and some excellent timpani solos. At times, there was a lack of crispness in the string sound in the less frenetic passages, while the woodwind delivered some strong individual playing across all instruments.
The lyrical, slow adagio movement opened softly with impressive and fine legato from the strings and haunting arpeggios from the woodwind, producing a gentle, soothing quality that was sensitively managed by Maestro Lam. A lovely French horn solo was well played by Malcolm Stewart.
The famous fourth movement, known as Ode to Joy, introduces both chorus and four vocalists using the now well-known text from Schiller’s poem An die Freude. With its emphasis on hope, renewal and the future, it is powerful, emotional music that was very well delivered and sung. A huge University of Queensland Chorus (UQC) with four excellent soloists, soprano Sarah Crane, mezzo-soprano Maria Woolford, tenor Rosario La Spina and baritone Shaun Brown, contributed to the marvellous finale that was both stirring and impassioned and brought the audience to its feet.
Lam gave an overall impressive reading of this work with repertoire that is challenging for the most professional of orchestras and he managed the difficult fourth movement with its vocal additions with aplomb. At times his tempi were on the fast side and his attention to detail seemed to slow down in the softer orchestral passages, where more length in the softer passages would have been welcome. But on the whole it was a good achievement and he is a welcome addition to the University’s orchestra as its new Director.
It was difficult at times to remember that this concert was mostly played and sung by students from UQSO and UQC, as the standard was of a very high quality indeed, both in the playing and delivery. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra mentors UQSO students, so some of their players took part in the concert, alongside the students, which clearly assisted the level of professionalism. There were also additional professional chorus members in the UQC, directed by Dr Shaun Brown.
But the afternoon was nevertheless a great success for the University who are to be commended on the extraordinary high level of musicianship attained in the presentation of this magnificent work.