BY HARRY SDRAULIG
The Orchestra Project
South Melbourne Town Hall, 16 April
For most of us, an overcast Easter Sunday afternoon in Melbourne means quiet time for reflection and leisure with family and friends. Not so for artistic director Fabian Russell and the driven, energetic musicians of The Orchestra Project, who mobilised for an electrifying performance of Mahler’s cataclysmic sixth symphony in front of an enthusiastic audience at South Melbourne’s antiquated Town Hall.
This was an impressively assembled orchestra, lining up some of Australia’s most accomplished professional musicians alongside an exciting body of young, emerging talent. And there was surely nobody more qualified to pull this project together than Fabian Russell, one of Australia’s leading conductors and a musician renowned for getting the very best out of the country’s brightest young talent. Though billed as an opportunity for young musicians to be mentored by professionals, this iteration of The Orchestra Project came across as something else – a fully-fledged orchestra in its own right, showcasing a level of technical accomplishment and musicianship which, at times, was barely distinguishable from the standard of Australia’s top professional orchestras.
From the very opening bars, the intensity and conviction of this performance was unflagging. The martial rhythmic drive of Mahler’s opening theme can become brash and aggressive in the wrong hands, but under Russell’s thoughtful direction it was delivered with finesse and control, providing an inevitability to the luxuriant romance of the ensuing Alma theme. Time was given to the movement’s more reflective moments, allowing Mahler’s lyricism to breathe and the sumptuousness of his harmonic resolutions to shine. The call-and-response dialogue between winds and strings was beautifully balanced, aided by the warmly homogeneous clarinet section and communicative phrasing across the orchestra. But the real highlight of the first movement was the duet between concertmaster Sophie Rowell and standout hornist Sydney Braunfeld, a moment delivered with such exquisite communication and lyricism that time virtually stood still.
Debate still rages as to the correct ordering of the middle movements of this symphony. Against the current trend (but perhaps with musical sense), Russell elected to present the Scherzo second. This was a fiery rendition, emphasising the devilishness of Mahler’s scoops and accents and showcasing the acrobatic dynamism of the stellar horn line-up. The trio section was treated expansively, with sophisticated phrasing from oboist Joshua Oates and bold interjections from clarinettist Philip Arkinstall. The movement’s closing bars were gripping in their combination of alert intensity but near inaudibility.
A disarmingly beautiful rendition of the Andante moderato followed. Russell’s interpretation was unashamedly expansive and emotional, emphasising the movement’s romanticism without sacrificing clarity of line or phrasing. Yet there was no risk of the self-indulgent sentimentality that characterises many a performance of Mahler – here, the musicians were entirely beholden to the subtle peaks and troughs of interwoven phrases. Each soloistic contribution from the orchestra was tasteful and refined, and the overall ensemble was expertly balanced by Russell, who was mindful to conserve energy and intensity for the main climax towards the end of the movement. The exposed nature of Mahler’s chordal writing for the winds in this movement presents an immense test of sectional intonation – a challenge which this wind section generally overcame.
The finale presents a colossal challenge for any orchestra, and all things considered this performance was a remarkable feat. Though the poor acoustic of the South Melbourne Town Hall is almost unbearably boomy during orchestral concerts, it was a decided asset for the famous hammer blows, which have rarely sounded so impactful. Principal trumpet Shane Hooton was immense, gliding expertly over the orchestra in the big moments but receding sensitively when required. The lower brass excelled throughout, often displaying impeccable balance and synchronicity. Russell’s handling of the overall structure was thoughtful and persuasive, favouring a brisk tempo without ever hurrying. Perhaps most impressively, every member of the orchestra appeared to give their absolute all until the devastating final chord, fighting through the inevitable physical and emotional exhaustion of performing this 85-minute masterpiece.
You might hear a more technically rendition of Mahler’s sixth by a professional orchestra. But rarely will you hear a performance which matches the energy, dedication and passion delivered by Fabian Russell and the musicians of The Orchestra Project. One can only hope that this wonderful initiative sees many iterations, for the benefit of Australian audiences as much as for the young musicians involved. While the current political climate may make us feel despondent about the prognosis for classical music and the arts, this powerfully moving performance by some of our brightest talent provided all the evidence we need that the future of Australian music is in very good hands.
Read more about The Orchestra Project in our interview with Fabian Russell, conductor.