Musica Viva. Adelaide Town Hall. 13 May 2021
Musica Viva’s current touring program is a triumph. It features the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) orchestra directed by Sophie Rowell, alumnus Harry Ward (violin), and virtuoso pianist Konstantin Shamray. Rowell addresses the large audience from the stage and in speaking briefly about the program she also suggested that ANAM’s fine work with young elite musicians will ensure that classical music performance in Australia is in good hands. After experiencing such a wonderful concert – a mix of new and not so new, with a dash of youth and daring – we can be in no doubt about that.
The program rolls together strange bedfellows, but it works at a number of levels. Firstly, we have the gentle lyricism of an arrangement for piano and string orchestra of Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor. This is then sharply contrasted with the brutal beauty of Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings. After the interval we are soothed and transported to an almost other-worldly place by the diffuse grace and refinement of Lamento for Solo Violin and String Orchestra by contemporary Estonian composer Mihkel Kertem. And finally, as if to impose a sense of familiarity, the evening finishes with the ever popular Serenade for Strings in C, Op.48 by Tchaikovsky. Strange bedfellows indeed, but an extremely comfortable ménage à quatre as it turns out.
Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor is a single movement composition for piano, violin, viola and cello, and the arrangement by Ward captures the richness and unrepressed passion of the youthful composition. It was written by Mahler when he was only sixteen. The ANAM orchestra is superbly led by Rowell on violin, and features Shamray at his interpretative best, but his performance of the Schnittke is exceptional and worth the ticket price by itself.
Composed in 1979, Schnittke’s Concerto for Piano and Strings is not an easy work to listen to, like much of his musical output. Schnittke himself described his music as polystylistic, but others have been less generous and have suggested it is chaotic. The Concerto is awash with disparate musical ideas and mind numbing crashing chords, but Shamray seems to find its gestalt and wows the audience with his virtuosity.
Kerem’s Lamento was originally scored for cello and strings and the version for violin and strings was commissioned by Musica Viva. Ward tapped the inner beauty of the piece and effortlessly made the COVID-masked audience forget they were in the midst of a pandemic, painting for us a pastoral scene of delicate stillness, contemplation and hope. Rowell balanced the ensemble against this vulnerability.
Tchaikovsky’s Serenade isn’t a pot boiler, but it’s comfortable and safe ground. It is of course a well-known piece and an audience favourite, and therein lays a sting. A young ensemble, like ANAM, have no choice but to play it well, very well indeed, otherwise less generous audience members will soundly criticise them and blame an average performance on relative youth. However, ANAM comes up trumps and gives as good a performance as any. With only twenty in the ensemble, clarity and articulation from each musician is vital. Rowell leads beautifully and ANAM follow with precision and passion. All of Tchaikovsky’s lush melodies and subtle nuances come through with style.
Program notes should not be necessary in order to enjoy a concert – the music should speak for itself. Sometimes however they provide insights into the rationale behind the actual programming, which can enhance the listening experience. Musica Viva’s program notes are always a case in point, and they make for interesting reading and provide motivation long after the event to revisit the program through recordings.
Musica Viva’s next tour in Adelaide is on 17 June 2021, and features horn, violin and piano repertoire from Mozart and Brahms, as well as a world première of Australian composer Gordon Kerry’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, which was commissioned for Musica Viva by Julian Burnside. This promises to be another intellectually and aesthetically pleasing concert.
Where: Adelaide Town Hall