“Every concert at the moment is a gift,” observed Benjamin Northey at the opening of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Thursday night. Indeed, it is a rare gift, in these times, to sit with an audience, inside a concert hall, and enjoy live performers on stage. And doubly so at Thursday’s concert, for central to the program was Margaret Sutherland’s Violin Concerto from 1960, a rarely performed gem from one of the great Australian composers of the 20th century.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Sophie Rowell credit Laura ManaritiMelbourne Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Sophie Rowell. Photo © Laura Manariti

It was Sutherland herself who lobbied for the construction of Hamer Hall; her name adorns the Concertmaster’s suite at the venue. It is a great shame that so few have heard of Margaret Sutherland, and even fewer have had the pleasure of hearing her music live. Thomas Matthews and Victorian State Orchestra under Georges Tzipine premiered her Violin Concerto in 1961 – it was composed between 1955 and 1960, and is one of her rarer orchestral pieces; there is considerably more solo and chamber work in her repertoire. Matthews was well-known in the Melbourne scene, and premiered numerous solo works for violin in his time. Of the Sutherland premiere in 1961, one writer observed at the time: “Margaret Sutherland was fortunate to have as accomplished a violinist as Thomas Matthews to present the first reading of her new Violin Concerto. It proved to be an attractive work, right from the chromatic upward passage that launches it, through a martial allegro, a lyrical adagio that is not without humour, and a threatening fierce final allegro in which the adagio theme undergoes an ingenious transformation.”

Her approach to rhythm was not unduly compared to Stravinsky. After the well-received premiere, Matthews then took Sutherland’s Violin Concerto to the South Australian Symphony Orchestra, with whom he recorded it – that recording, unfortunately, was never released. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra played it again in 1972 for Sutherland’s 75th birthday, after which they recorded it again; the score itself was published in 1978. Most recently, Elizabeth Sellars and the Monash Academy Orchestra had performed it again in Melbourne in 2016 with conductor Alexander Briger. The latest performances will bring the grand total of the Violin Concerto’s public outings to seven.

It is, as noted by many, a shame that we do not have the pleasure of hearing this piece more often. It is well-suited to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which has always excelled with 20th-century works in which stridency and subtlety are demanded in equal measure. Sutherland’s Concerto embodies the tension of that era between romantic tonal music and lyrical chromaticism – it is hefty, serious, cerebral music that retains raw emotional appeal. She is sometimes described as the mother of Australian modernist music, and one can detect echoes of her contemporaries and successors in Australian composition. All of this sits well under the Symphony’s hands, and Northey’s enthusiasm for the work is clear.

Sophie Rowell was the ideal performer, because the work has a conversational style that requires an understanding and a degree of equality between the orchestra and the soloist. Who better to sit in conversation with an orchestra than its Concertmaster? The concerto is also a technically difficult work for any violinist, and Rowell clearly met the challenge.

Bookending the Sutherland feature were Sibelius’ Finlandia and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. These are both much-loved works, the former a rousing opening to the concert and the latter a warm and charming close for what was, due to the various restrictions placed upon the audience, an intimate concert experience. As noted, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra excels with more modern repertoire and, under Northey, gave reassuringly familiar performances of these two 20th-century works. Although the Sibelius and Ravel were both much better known, Sutherland’s Violin Concerto sat comfortably between them. We can only hope her works become just as familiar.

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