Melbourne Town Hall
August 3, 2018

One of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s strengths is the range of excellent venues it has at its disposal across the city, and the Town Hall is of course no exception. Its acoustic strengths and weaknesses have been debated for over a century and although the venue lacks the luxuries of Melbourne’s more modern concert halls, the Town Hall is eminently suited to orchestral music. Much is made of more modern, drier halls and their comforts, but our older venues without fail provide a unique and charming experience. The Town Hall is a warm space and is well-suited to large, Romantic symphonic forces, particularly when the music is similarly rich.  Audiences agree, and Friday’s night’s instalment of the MSO’s Town Hall series was sold out for three months, making it perhaps the orchestra’s biggest success of the 2018 season.

Piers Lane. Photo © Keith Saunders

When Tibor Paul, from the Hungarian Broadcasting Corporation, took up the baton as a guest conductor of the Victorian Symphony Orchestra for a concert including Kodály’s Dances of Galánta at the Town Hall in September 1951, local press wondered if something was amiss. The conducting was legible, but ‘lacking in character’, and one reviewer came away with ‘a sense of something lacking – of a feeling that sometimes all was not well between conductor and orchestra.’ Perhaps it was the acoustics of the venue, which in previous decades had been regularly subject to criticism for ‘blurring’ notes and creating dissonance, much to the embarrassment of city authorities. Or perhaps it was the repertoire – Dances of Galánta is a mature and modern Kodály composition replete with rhythmic and melodic nuance that might be lost in such an environment. In any case, it seems the evening was saved by the jewel in the Town Hall’s crown, its grand organ, and a performance of the Handel Organ Concerto No 9.

The same critique cannot be levelled at the MSO under Benjamin Northey, whose disciplined leadership of the orchestra ensured a lively opening presentation of Kodály’s frenetic, exhilarating treatment of Hungarian folk dances. This is a highly accessible and relatively conservative piece for Kodály, but it is rollicking good fun and set the tone for entertaining evening. A slightly restless audience, many still coming to their seats throughout the first piece, might have originally signed up for the Organ Symphony, but were clearly captivated by the end of the orchestra’s opening statement. The MSO was muscular and assertive, working well with the Town Hall acoustics to produce a rich and dense sound with just enough schmaltz for a Friday evening concert.

If they had not come for the Saint-Saëns, the audience was just as likely to have been there for the next work of Hungarian origins, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1, under the virtuoso hands of London-based Australian pianist, Piers Lane. Pianist and orchestra competed for dominance as they presented the concerto’s powerful opening motif, but Northey soon brought his thunderous forces under control and allowed the soloist to shine through. Lane moved deftly between and across the music in an exciting and ultimately compelling performance, marked by both intricate virtuosity and sheer force – indeed at times one could sense Lane straining to extract ever more from his instrument as the concerto moved towards its fortissimo bravura conclusion. With an audience eager for more and a conductor with knack for reading the room, Lane returned onstage for a short and delightful solo encore before the break.

As Northey noted in his informal opening address – a nice touch – there are few places in the world better suited to a performance of Saint-Saëns’ well-loved Symphony No 3 than Melbourne’s Town Hall. Its grand organ was built after 1925 and had its opening recital in 1929. It was one of the largest organs built in the world during the interwar years, and until its restoration was believed to be the largest intact organ from the period outside North America. By the end of the century it had fallen into disrepair and was unplayable, until significant work to restore and extend the instrument took place and it was welcomed back into the world in 2001. It is a remarkable instrument to behold, and canny concertgoers were treated to a free recital of Bach and Boëllmann prior to the main event.

The Organ Symphony is familiar to anyone with a passing interest in classical repertoire, and perhaps beyond. There is, of course, scope for interpretation and personality in the work, but at this point in time a successful performance of Saint-Saëns’ most well-known works simply demands energy, proficiency, and commitment, and the MSO delivered these in spades for their rousing second act. The crowd was pleased and the organ – with the steady hand of Calvin Bowman at its controls – was nothing short of breathtaking when in full flight. What a wonderful gem we have hidden away behind the Venetian façade of the Melbourne Town Hall.