As a celebratory segue to the 250th Anniversary of Beethoven‘s birth in 2020, the final Willoughby Symphony Orchestra concert for 2019 began with the instantly recognisable Egmont Overture, Op. 84. Beethoven was commissioned to compose incidental music to Goethe’s heroic play, Egmont, in 1810. From the opening majestic chords, the orchestra, ably led by concertmaster Maria Lindsay, gave a lively account, full of expression, yet also full of unyielding intense climaxes throughout the piece.
Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Dr Nicholas Milton, introduced the violin soloist, Alexandre Da Costa, for the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26. The young French-Canadian impressed with his thoughtful tenderness in the second movement, aided by the orchestra’s subtle mood and dynamic changes, after a first movement Vorspiel that showed off his clean technique on his mellow 1701 Stradivarius instrument. The Finale further demonstrated the great conviction in Da Costa’s playing and his double-stopping prowess. The entire performance by both soloist and orchestra contrasted great rhythmic energy with beautiful lyricism.
Da Costa’s stage presence was evident when he introduced his encore, Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, a fellow Quebecois, as “a break with protocol”. It was played with a string quartet comprised of the principal first and second violinists, violist, and cellist.
After Interval, the impressive “Titan” Symphony No. 1 in D of Mahler confirmed the capability of the orchestra under the direction of Dr Milton who did not use a score during the entire evening. The work started life in 1889 as a symphonic poem in 2 parts before it became a 5 movement “tone poem in symphonic form”, finally becoming Mahler’s first Symphony in 1896 following the deletion of one movement. Milton described it as “a landmark work of the symphonic canon”. The piece is titanic in several respects, viz it’s length at approximately 55 minutes; its orchestration, hence the music used was a reduced orchestration version; its depiction of life, suffering, and defeat at the hands of the fate of a powerful individual called Titan from one of Jean-Paul Richter’s novels; and its importance in the evolution of the symphony at the time of its composition.
The quiet ethereal beginning, played by the strings, was not dissimilar to the start of many of Bruckner’s symphonies. The subsequent sounds of nature, as played by the woodwinds, reflected nature in all its glory. The human element was added to the leisurely start “… Im Anfang sehr gemächlich“, with the brass and percussion in full cry by the conclusion of the first movement. The strong second movement was based on the Ländler, an Austrian folk dance, the tempo of which was certainly not too fast “kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell“. The solemn third movement, based on the round Frère Jacques (or Bruder Martin), opened quietly with the double basses after a soft timpani roll. The tune was subsequently thrown over to the cellos, then violas, and finally the violins. The dramatic final movement was certainly “stürmisch…“; the percussion section, particularly the cymbals and drum, seemingly having yet more fun. The pensive middle section, involving muted strings, seemed to amplify the tumult and bravura brought to the fore by this accomplished orchestra. A majestic ending with the horns, together with a trumpeter and trombonist, standing up, brought the night to a brilliant close.