Metropolis: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Frescoes of Dionysius

Frescoes of Dionysius
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
9 April, 2014

This year Helsinki-born Olli Mustonen conducts the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Metropolis New Music Festival, bringing with him his extensive knowledge of and experience with Scandinavian music and composers. In particular, his mentor and friend Rodion Shchedrin has been singled out for special attention, with three Australian premieres of Shchedrin pieces programmed in the festival.

Wednesday night’s performance began with Shchedrin’s haunting Frescoes of Dionysius for nonet. A sculptural clarity pervades the smooth lines of the work, which proceeds through a steady pulsing between two notes that are variously transformed through savage Bartok pizzicati in the strings and foggy winds. Occasionally the celesta punctuates the plodding surface, or a violin strikes up a folksy double-stopped line. Dissonant chords rumble underneath. The timeless quality of the pulse is decorated by the instrumental intrusions like the natural and human world around the Ferapontov monastery where the frescoes are painted.

Mustonen’s sonata for violin and orchestra can be heard as an expansion of the Frescoes into a larger form. The rumbling chords appear in the winds as Kristian Winther’s violin line mulls over short sequences of notes in the most beautifully preoccupied way. Winther carried the audience through the piece with presence and conviction in what was not just an execution but a true performance. The pulse appears and builds to a climax in contrary motion in the treble and bass of the orchestra. If this description sounds simplistic, it is because Mustonen’s orchestration of sonata’s original piano part is simple. This simplicity lent an elegance to the first third. However, after the solo violin whips the orchestra into a frenzy with a folk dance tune, the piece dissipates into a sort of Hollywood score of indistinct menace and wonder, with tired filmic harmonies standing exposed and undecorated in the strings.

Cybec finalist Lisa Cheney’s The Pool and the Star is based on Judith Wright’s poem of the same name. The poem tells of a pool watching a star rise in the sky. The star is reflected in the pool all night until, when the star sets, the pool and the star appear to kiss. A short timbral introduction with bowed cymbals quickly gives way to an intensely thematic piece. Keening melodies dance in the woodwind and on the harp before some excellent, bold brass writing tells of the intensity of the pool’s desire.

Shchedrin’s “sotto voce” concerto for cello and orchestra was originally composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, whose reputation as a strong player made him perhaps a novel choice for a concerto exploring the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum. The audience has to wait a while to hear it, though, for the first movement is as intense as that of any late romantic cello concerto. The principal theme is repeated several times over the murky watercolour background of strings and brass, becoming quieter and quieter each time, until the final, truly sotto voce statement. It would definitely have been possible in the magnificently resonant Elisabeth Murdoch Hall for cellist Marko Ylönen to exaggerate these dynamic contrasts. Though the thematic material of the first movement seems a little formulaic for what I would expect from a Metropolis concert, the concerto gets better as it goes along. A magnificent solo bursts forth with a wash of resonance and instrument-sound. The instrument vibrates to its absolute limits as Ylönen scrubs across all four strings. The string section pick up this thick, marshy texture and the principal theme returns. I wonder sometimes which musical effects are only possible with a long build-up, with extensive preparation from the composer and attentive listening from the audience. Perhaps the finale of the “sotto voce” concerto is just such a moment. Alarming in its simplicity, bells and a folk-like chant on tenor recorder (played by Genevieve Lacey) appear out of the romantic dross. The work is wonderfully bipolar from here on. The orchestra rushes in like a bulldozer. When the recorder returns, the tune is imitated high up on the cello. The piece ends with the cello playing a tremolo on a false harmonic glissando to the top of the instrument, with the distant sound of stones knocking together in the distance.

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