The aptly named principal timpanist Tim Corkeron welcomed the 450 high school students to the packed concert hall, especially any budding timpani players. All were eager to hear the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Pictures at an Exhibition concert highlighting two important Russian composers, and a world premiere from the Victorian composer and writer Gordon Kerry. Fortunately, a lessening of border restrictions enabled both Kerry and conductor Benjamin Northey to come from Melbourne and participate in the momentous concert. Northey, Limelight’s 2018 Australian Artist of the Year: People’s ChoiceChief Conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor in Residence of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, exclaimed how happy he was to be finally out of the house after a long, long year!

Benjamin Northey conducting the Queensland Symphony OrchestraBenjamin Northey conducting the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Peter Wallis

The QSO opened with the rarely played pagan-themed Overture from May Night by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The supernatural folk opera is based on the ghostly tale by Ukrainian Nikolai Gogol, about a witchy stepmother who causes her husband’s daughter to drown herself. The eerie music is distinctly Russian, starting with a slow dolce melody building to frantic tumbling strings and blaring horns. The contrasting waltz-like interludes were beautiful and the flute seemed to float high above the orchestra.

Northey reminded the musicians that the composer Gordon Kerry was in the audience for his world premiere, so there was “no pressure!” The sinfonia was commissioned by Kerry’s friend Marena Manzoufas who passed away in 2019. The Sinfonia concertante has a symphonic architecture containing four linked movements, yet it is unusual as both the flute and clarinet solos are also integrated into the texture of the orchestra.

Alison Mitchell, Irit Silver, Benjamin Northey and the QSOAlison Mitchell, Irit Silver, Benjamin Northey and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Peter Wallis

The interplay between the crystal tones of the flute of Alison Mitchell and the mellow throatiness of Irit Silver’s clarinet was sublime. The harp, strings and vibraphone painted a magical rainforest-like canvas where the playful twittering motifs of the flute and clarinet chased and teased each other in the sunlight. The brass mimicked the woodwind’s calls from a distance whilst the eerie cellos seemed predatory amongst the shadows. Mitchell’s flute seemed to soar above the musical canopy as Silver’s clarinet penetrated the shadows. The two solos became entwined in a mystical harmonious union, resulting in explosive applause.

The iconic aural vignettes of Pictures at an Exhibition, composed in 1874 by Mussorgsky for the piano, were inspired by the paintings of Viktor Hartmann when the composer visited a posthumous exhibition at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Mussorgsky encapsulated the ten paintings with his musical compositions, each sculpted to mimic his own emotions when viewing each one. After Mussorgsky’s death in 1881 his friend Rimsky-Korsakov tidied up the composition and in 1922 Maurice Ravel masterfully re-arranged it for the orchestra. Ravel recreated the nuances of the brushstrokes using the unique timbres of the instruments to elevate a collection of quirky piano compositions to a treasured voyeuristic journey through the exhibition.

As Northey adeptly promenaded the QSO through the gallery each section had an opportunity to shine. The iconic Promenade uses the intermezzo trumpet theme to pompously parade between the hundreds of paintings. You can envisage the commanding figure of Mussorgsky strolling around the gallery, head held high with his arms behind his back, stopping to peer at each of Hartmann’s artworks in the minutest detail. The percussionists appeared to thoroughly enjoy delivering their rendition of the Gnome. The brassy motif was marvellously menacing with the smack of the clapper and the whirl of the rattle interspersed with fast bursts from the cellos and double basses.

The orchestra aurally recreated each painting, including The Old Castle with Emma Di Marco’s sweet saxophone and a gentle string ostinato. A trudging tuba dragged a heavy cart in the Bydło, and flapping flutes with pizzicato strings ran amok in the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. You could feel the cold clammy hand of the reaper when the trombones and triangle rang out the death knell in the terrifying Catacombs. In The Hut on Hen’s Legs the strings pulsated with urgency as the brass fled from the ferocious Baba Yaga to the persistent crash of the cymbals. Finally, the bells chimed over the galloping quavers of the horses, kicking up dust at The Great Gate of Kiev with Northey artfully steering the musicians as they frantically cascaded up and down the scales. A tumultuous crash of the cymbals and a conclusive sweep of the baton left the audience ecstatic and the high school students wolf-whistling for more.

The QSO with Benjamin Northey at the helm exhibited an incredible virtuosic mastery in Pictures at an Exhibition that would be difficult to repeat. Fortunately, you can hear the concert on ABC Classic on 8 May at 1 pm (AEST).

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