BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
Works by Vivaldi and Max Richter
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
Federation Concert Hall, 11 May
Old and new.
It’s not an uncommon juxtaposition in the art world and beyond. We marvel at 18th Century architecture within today’s largest cities, evolved to be surrounded by glistening, glassy buildings of the modern era. Visit a major art gallery and you might catch a Monet on display, with a Patricia Piccinini a few rooms over.
So how does this link between old and new translate into musical form?
This was explored by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra in its Four Seasons concert. Concertmaster Emma McGrath led string players from the orchestra through works by two major composers: Vivaldi and Max Richter.
There are centuries between these two globally renowned talents. In the first half of the performance, we listened to music that would have been performed during the Baroque era – an entirely different world. In the second half, we heard Max Richter’s 2012 take in Recomposed: Vivaldi The Four Seasons. Setting these works side-by-side resulted in a few programmatic effects. But first, let’s explore the nature of the performance itself.
The ensemble on stage was a small one – mostly string performers standing up (but for the low strings and harpsichord). Emma, our soloist, emerged in a startling hot pink dress – the only one betraying the tradition of concert blacks (in fact, when she soon shared the stage with duo partner Elinor Lea, it would have been fitting for the pair to deviate together rather than one soloist standing out over the other).
The event opened with Vivaldi’s Concerto in G, RV151 Alla rustica, a three-movement and four-minute work through which Emma bolstered the ensemble’s ability to perform remarkably as a single unit. The Presto opened with impressively wide-ranging dynamics, while the Adagio was weighty but followed by masterful solo sections in the Allegro.
Rapidly, we moved to the Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, RV522. Emma and Elinor stood in the centre of the arc of strings, and faced the audience but for occasional glances toward each other. The first movement was at once competitive and collaborative; the second featured solid passages of unison; while the third presented a feeling of unison in expression and style.
The following Concerto in A, RV158 was only eight minutes in length, and with its many repeated sections it sounded as consistent as you’d expect in a recording – right to the final note of the work. And the final work of the first half was the Concerto in A minor, RV356, which saw Emma alone in the centre. When surrounded by such rigidity, the expressivity of her solos would perhaps have been better suited to a slow movement. Largo showed us the exact opposite; with minimal (if any) vibrato, I felt the audience hold its breath during the emotional support provided by the upper strings. It was released at the start of the Presto, and then – unfortunately – it was time for the interval.
After hearing so many short snippets of Vivaldi, the second half burst in with Richter’s Recomposed: Vivaldi The Four Seasons; Spring 0-3 opening with birdlike calls, slowly engulphed in moody strings. The evocative nature of the work shifted me into an entirely different psychological state as a listener – the work is introspective and nothing like the Vivaldi works, despite being influenced by material of the same composer.
Emma’s role as soloist here seems less about virtuosity, and more about progressing through the texture of the work. She often smiled and nodded, and in a live performance I feel a musician’s visible enjoyment is an important and contagious aspect.
As predictable as the Vivaldi works were – letting our ears anticipate the many resolves we knew would come – this work was unpredictable in both expression and theme (and ending; with many of the movements concluding abruptly). Sometimes, Emma conducted with her bow, still facing the audience. At other times, she’d show interaction as a violinist with her fellow string players – especially highlighting the teamwork between her and the cellos. This work, if not the entire evening, was a magnificent showcase of the TSO strings.
After about 44 minutes, Recomposed came to a close, which was as moving as its opening. Standing ovations and piercing wolf-whistles were in abundance, and not unreasonably.
Rather than fond memories of a concert performed spectacularly (which it was), I took more away from this performance. It left me reflecting on our listening capacity as concertgoers, and the way orchestras program their works. As the first half was broken up by four short pieces, themselves separated into three movements each, I felt it was a refreshing experience that allowed us to explore the beauty of Vivaldi’s concertos in-depth and without fatigue. This was well programmed to match our attention spans as listeners (in an era when, regretfully, these attention spans are shortened thanks to the burden of social media and instantly accessible information). An hour-long piece of music can be a marathon for musicians and audiences alike, so to have a recital featuring short bursts of fine music can be welcome. However, it may have been more appropriate to program the Richter first, and lead us sustainably into the evening with his longer work before allowing us to enjoy a lighter second half.
Regardless of the order of programming, I was greatly enthusiastic that this concert (which, to confess, I’d been looking forward to for a few months) was an outstanding event.