Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 2
The strident opening of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 2 settled into a warm melody from the string section as the audience settled into their seats in the Macquarie Theatre. Under the direction of conductor Gary Stavrou, the full size orchestra filled the theatre with the intensity and drama of Grieg’s work. Arguably the 19th century equivalent of a film soundtrack, Grieg composed this music to accompany the play, Peer Gynt, by playwright and fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. The second movement in the suite, Arabian Dance, opened with a pair of piccolos accompanied by percussion, the unusual scoring highlighting the exoticism of the movement. Written to accompany a storm scene in Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt’s Homecoming was the most dramatic movement in the work, with Stavrou using the orchestra’s size to full advantage. The final movement, Solveig’s Song, was more reflective; a soulful melody in the strings, accompanied by harp, and interspersed with ethereal chords from the wind section.
Intriguingly, the second item on the program was just titled “Mystery Music.” As the orchestra reset the stage, Stavrou amused the audience with a guessing competition; the first person to guess the piece would win tickets to the next Balmain Sinfonia concert. A quartet comprising two violins, flute and cello performed a bright, stately piece of music while the audience wracked their brains. Following the applause the audience called out their guesses and Stavrou awarded the prize to the man who had shouted “Mozart!” revealing that the piece had been an arrangement of Country Dance No. 5.
For Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, nicknamed “Drumroll,” the trumpet players swapped their modern instruments for natural trumpets (one of which seemed to be adorned with a festive purple tassel), for a more authentic sound. True to its nickname, the symphony opened with a long drumroll, two large swells of sound from the timpani, followed by a sombre melody from bassoon and lower strings. A particular highlight of this symphony was the violin solo in the second movement, performed by the concertmaster, Alistair Duff-Forbes.
At interval there was an unusually fervent press of people at the refreshments table. After struggling through the crowd, the cause became apparent: hefty servings of pavlova, laden with cream, peach slices, cherries and passionfruit (my companion reviewed this combination of fruit as “unusual but very pleasing.”) They were selling for three dollars a slice and by the time we made it to the front of the queue there were only three left.
Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy
The second half of the concert opened with the awarding of the lucky door prize (a bottle of wine) before Stavrou introduced the final piece on the program, Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Originally commissioned by the virtuoso violinist Paganini to play on his new Stradivarius viola, Harold in Italy is based on Lord Byron’s poem, Childe-Harold. Paganini famously rejected the score after seeing the first movement, complaining that there were too few opportunities to display his virtuosity. Soloist Charlotte Fetherston, rather than standing at the front of the orchestra, as is usual in a concerto, sat in the principal viola seat so that she might, in Stavrou’s words, “help out” with the viola section between solos. Despite having disappointed Paganini’s desire for technical virtuosity, Harold in Italy provided ample opportunity for Fetherston to showcase her rich tone and musicality. In the finale, colourfully titled Orgy of Brigands, Memories of Scenes Past, themes from the earlier movements were revisited between passages of building excitement from the strings and menacing brass, culminating in a wild orchestral climax.
The impressive standard of the orchestra, combined with an interesting and varied program (not to mention the delicious deserts from the refreshments table) made this a very fulfilling afternoon of music.
Conductor: Gary Stavrou
Soloist: Charlotte Fetherstone, viola
Macquarie Theatre, Macquarie University, June 15, 2014