Federation Concert Hall
October 10, 2018

“I think we’re going to have a party.” These were the introductory words of TSO Managing Director Nicholas Heyward, who gave an opening address to the audience before the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s 70th Anniversary Concert. As warming as it was to see him in the flesh, he needn’t have stated this prediction – the music soon said it all. Romeo Retold was perhaps the most exciting and high-octane concert I’ve attended in the Federation Concert Hall.

The hall was abuzz long before the lights dimmed – musicians filling up the stage with smile, chatter, and instrumental toying; audience members left with scarcely a seat available as they contributed to the joyous ring heard in the space. After Heyward’s address (which also included a thanks to the TSO supporters, including the audience and government funding), conductor Marko Letonja stepped on stage to open the night with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture.

It was one of three works in this concert, each of which told of this Shakespearean tale, and this was well-selected as the opening work. A slow build, it took a while for the energy to exceed the pre-concert anticipation – but once struck, it was sustained throughout the night. Letonja’s pacing across the course of this work was in outstanding taste, and – despite a few loud page turns and peripheral noises from the orchestra – the familiar themes were expertly demonstrated. The strict main theme of the work was skilfully executed – somewhat fearful when juxtaposed with the rich and romantic string lines that arrived with a gentler tempo.

While the Tchaikovsky saw the inclusion of about five double basses and a harp among its other instruments (a collection of which appeared pushed to the very edge of the stage), the next piece invited even more players on board – namely in the winds. Somehow, they still had enough room to perform when they piled in for Bernstein’s epic West Side Story, Symphonic Dances – here presented with a startling combination of crispness and vigour.

In combination with the TSO’s birthday, Bernstein’s legacy is also celebrated this year as 2018 marks a century since the composer’s birth. (In a further twist of good timing, a remake of West Side Story itself has been announced, with Spielberg officially working on the upcoming film.) The Shakespearean tale, of course, is timeless – but the TSO presented its musical depiction in a performance far stronger than some of the recordings I’ve heard of these famous dances in the past.

The dances are rhythmically complex and often demand awkward leaps of some instrumentalists. And while it wasn’t always pristine, this performance certainly came close. Faces in the orchestra varied between expressions of intense concentration, and eager grins; while the audience held a collective breath. The TSO could have succumbed to the let-loose feel of the work, rather than control each phrase with precision and consistency – but they opted for the latter. (As an aside, it was rather amusing to watch Letonja in his cool; a man of his musical sensitivities could be spotted leaning back with torso forward, pointing his hands in a laid-back manner to each section as he needed; having fun as the players snapped their fingers or cried “Mambo!”)

Thank goodness the interval was placed after this piece – I felt challenged by the sustained energy, and it was a tough act to follow (albeit aided by the free TSO birthday champagne offered to all at interval).

Excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet came next; starting with The Montagues and the Capulets – a powerful, tense, heavy movement. The double bassists’ heads could be seen bopping to the great throbs of the lower strings and brass against this familiar melody. But once the appeal of this theme had ceased, the rest of the work’s lesser-heard beauty came to the fore. In fact, some of the inner movements from the selection were even greater. But, although performed during a birthday party, we were still not allowed to clap when it certainly felt called-for.

After the concert had formally concluded, Letonja spoke to the audience – hinting that he’d wanted the night to be kept not-too-loud, and expressing his hope that we enjoyed the volume. He appeared entirely buzzed by the experience, overflowing with such high enthusiasm that he demanded of the orchestra what appeared to be an unexpected encore of the most familiar Prokofiev theme once again.

If Romeo Retold is an indication of the way the TSO can party, count me in for the 80th anniversary.