The outstanding event of the last concert in 2017 by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, under Nicholas Milton, was the performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto by the 23-year-old Australian violinist Harry Bennetts. Bennetts is the winner of the Australian National Academy of Music Concerto Competition and was selected as an academist by the Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the only graduate of ANAM to be so selected. Both his technique and musicianship in the Tchaikovsky Concerto were well-nigh perfect. His tone was always firm and sweet and never rough or coarse. The audience could not wait until the end of the concerto and gave him a standing ovation at the end of the first movement (which is admittedly long enough to reveal the qualities, or lack of them, of any player). The audience clearly thought he had a great future, a view I share. I was especially grateful for some fine woodwind playing in the slow movement.
The concert began with a rather noisy performance of the Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila by Glinka. The playing of the first violins in rapid passages was by no means unanimous.
The other major work on the programme was the Second Symphony of Sibelius, a work which for some reason has always attracted the attention of the great conductors. Often it can sound trivial and episodic. But on this occasion, by maintaining a firm beat and clearly separating the various choirs of the orchestra in the early movements, Milton made its musical argument clearer and more convincing than usual. Excellent orchestral playing was also of great help. Milton was wise, at least in the beginning, to emphasise the lyrical qualities of the work, rather than its ‘heroic’ qualities which can easily sound pretentious. This indeed did happen in the final movement, where the conductor let the orchestra have its head and the result was altogether too brassy and triumphalistic. The frequently repeated Three Coins in a Fountain theme became wearisome and oppressive.
But despite the Sibelius being something of a disappointment after some of the orchestra’s recent efforts (I thought their performances of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances this year were better) Harry Bennetts’ performance was excellent. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the finest 19th-century violin concertos and both soloist and orchestra revealed its true worth.