As I stepped into the Federation Concert Hall on Friday night, I felt a surprising jolt of familiarity. I joined a community of concertgoers that had recovered – seemingly uncorrupted – from the city’s recent events. (Of course, I’m referring to Dark Mofo – in which the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra performed ambient album Riceboy Sleeps in a moody and hazy hall; and a collection of its musicians presented songs of sin in the nearby Hobart Town Hall.)
Things were back to a leisurely normal, and the only noticeable difference was the number of empty seats (perhaps a few regulars had been psychologically wiped out for a week or two, after all). This TSO performance was named Rococo Variations, after Tchaikovsky’s work, which featured in the program. It was led by Spanish conductor Jaime Martín, who motioned the players through the program opener Le tombeau de Couperin by Ravel. It was simultaneously magical and unsentimental. While conducting, Martín looked as though he were expressing the stroke of every instrument and every phrase; even the silence at the ends of movements. He was an astounding visual communicator. The consequence was particularly precise playing from the orchestra, and the work itself seemed to reflect his pleasant onstage personality (or vice versa). Some impressively gentle brass moments were heard in the third movement, and by the fourth I’d noticed that each section of the orchestra had taken their moments to shine – even though they were so often playing at once. It was as though all markings on Ravel’s page had been respected – or were simply implied, and understood, in an immaculate interpretation. After it was over, Martín walked into the orchestra and gestured for the winds to stand and receive the first cheer of the night; then the rest of the orchestra followed.
Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne for Cello and Small Orchestra was up next – and soloist Narek Hakhnazaryan was straight down to business with no hesitation, and no opportunity to build suspense or anticipation. It was so instantly dismal. He performed with wild waves of vibrato that altered his timbre and pitch to equal measure. (The timbre itself was no less than superb.) Beyond this, there was minimal variation in his playing – he built a consistent sound world.
During the next and much brighter Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme, the cellist continued his tendency to close his eyes and indulge completely in his own music, rather than communicating the unspoken messages and emotions to us in the audience. In the rare moments he did open his eyes, it was during passages of call and response – and he engaged in remarkable chemistry as he looked at the conductor to one side and violins to the other. They appeared to have a jolly time together, though I’d have liked for Hakhnazaryan to look out to the audience and invite us into the fun, too. Having said this, he still commanded a very strong and decisive presence – it dominated the stage and left me noticing the orchestra only passively, which was unusual.
After this work, Hakhnazaryan returned to the stage for a solo encore. Further to this lack of communication, he didn’t announce the name of the piece – though I later found out it was the Lamentatio by contemporary composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima. I’m not a fan of the encore, but I was grateful for this one. Hakhnazaryan’s mannerisms were completely transformed – his face changed from his trademark raised smile in the Tchaikovsky variations to intensely serious and filled with concentration in the encore. He started to sing traditional-sounding open tones in parallel with his cello notes, until he descended into rapid, virtuosic passages and various instrumental techniques. His encore itself – not his earlier works – received a standing ovation! (If you’d like to see what all the fuss is about, you can watch him perform this on another occasion on YouTube.)
During the interval, I’d noticed a great amount of young people in the audience. This was fitting, as the following Serenade No 1 was composed by Brahms while he was in his 20s. Brahms was overtly less exciting after the surprisingly thrilling encore, despite its impressive presentation by the players. Comically, the conductor would make a whoosh sound with his breath as he flew through the movements. It was amusing to watch, and even more so to listen to, as the hall’s acoustic made it sound crisp to the extent that this inadvertent expression rivalled the orchestra in dynamic and started to become part of the music itself.
There was a bit of poor intonation across the board, and the work as a whole was suitably more reserved. Unfortunately and gradually, I heard some suspiciously lethargic breathing from a nearby audience member, and two others walked out of the hall entirely, independent of each other – to which one violinist shot a terrifying death stare into the audience on observing the movement of the external doors. That was not the TSO’s finest moment, but I suspect this extremely rare audience reaction was not due to the quality of the performance – but to the order of works on the program. I’d advocate for a concert of this light nature to end with a bang as it began, even if that means a shorter concert. However, the final few movements picked up the pace and returned us to the momentum of a memorably enjoyable first half – much to the loss of those stray listeners. Indeed, they should have stayed and indulged in the big finish!