Review | Sophie Rowell + Kristian Chong light up Hamer Hall

by | Nov 28, 2020 | Ambassador thoughts

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall – Hamer Hall Series

3 X 3: MOZART, MYTHS AND MANTRAS

Thursday 26th November

Introduced by Chris Howlett and broadcast live through the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, well-known violinist and concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Sophie Rowell united with leading Australian pianist Kristian Chong for a concert titled 3 X 3: MOZART, MYTHS AND MANTRAS. The MDCH is a marvellous creative enterprise run by Chris Howlett and Adele Schonhardt, enabling Australian musicians to give recitals for relay into homes, and opening up musical performance to a worldwide audience during these untoward times. The 2,500 seats of Melbourne’s multi-level performing venue Hamer Hall served as the backdrop to this stage performance.

Three remarkably varied works from the 18th century to the present day were programmed, commencing with Mozart’s Sonata for piano with violin accompaniment in Bb major, composed in 1784 and requiring a high degree of virtuosity from both artists. The entire sonata is most ingeniously and endearingly expressed in the form of a good-natured dialogue. This interactive design was established from the outset, where powerful opening chords of a short introductory Largo preceded a tender melody, heard first on the piano, and then on violin. Continuing the “conversational imitation and parallel lines” as described in Kristian’s programme notes, the Allegro brimmed with ideas – a mix of scampering and leaping passages, attractive melodies, and musical fragments either reciprocated between the instruments, or converging in congenial unison, like refined gestures of agreement.

This was a wonderfully spirited performance which conveyed wistful and perky moments, and contained some delicately expressive phrasing.

Equal participation in the musical material was evident in the contemplative Andante which featured Sophie’s dulcet violin tones and a little stimulating harmonic digression. The sense of lively interchange was delightfully maintained in the final Allegretto, typically Mozartian in its playfulness involving nimble arpeggiations, with faster moving notes in the piano part leading to a vigorous conclusion.

Australian composer, pianist, organist, chamber musician (and audience member at this event) Calvin Bowman has made a specialisation of the art song form. Kristian spoke of his music as honest, natural, uncomplicated and un-egotistical, and despite the absence of the poetry, the three settings arranged here for violin and piano were notable for their lyricism and touching beauty. Now Touch the Air Softly (originally for tenor voice to a text by poet William Jay Smith), with its beautifully wistful tune and hint of heartfelt intensity, lent a ballad-like air. The Early Morning (written for soprano voice to a poem by Hilaire Belloc) imparted a dreamy gentle pathos, while The Night, another poem by Belloc originally set for bass-baritone, began and ended with piano alone, and further demonstrated Bowman’s hallmark lustrous writing for the keyboard.

With Mythes for Violin and Piano, Polish composer and pianist Szymanowski created “a new style, a new form of expression in violin playing, something of epoch-making significance”. Written in 1915, the three ‘poems’ are based on legends from Greek mythology, and call for an excess of specialised technical devices from the violinist. The piano part likewise demands an impressive diversity of touch and character. The programme notes mention that the “enchanting expressive nature” of Mythes is “the effect of the interaction of uncommon melody, harmony and colour ….. which includes an extensive range of emotional shades from lyricism to ecstasy.” The performance was all the more poignant for Sophie’s reflection on Szymanowski’s innovative musical language, and we learnt that this was one of her favourite pieces.

Each story was related through techniques such as double stops, harmonics, trills, tremolos and glissandi. Combinations of these effects added a heightened sense of agitation, and resulted in strikingly unusual colourful sounds for evoking specific sentiments and emotional states.

The nymph Arethusa was transformed into a stream after fleeing from a suitor. In The Fountain of Arethusa, an image of rippling water was represented at the outset by piano murmurings, while the violin lines were ethereal and full of tremulous emotion. Narcissus (who fell in love with his own image) contained music of both gentle and intense character, with sweet, soaring, and intensely vehement melodies on the violin. Of the three pieces, Dryads and Pan contained “an exceptional accumulation of unconventional sounds” (as the programme notes mention), starting out with the violin’s opening notes fluctuating a quarter-tone apart. There was more extensive use of the upper reaches of the violin fingerboard as the music incorporated languorous tunes, the other-worldly sound of harmonics to suggest panpipes, and a sense of restless movement. Both musicians displayed admirable command of the musical complexities, and gave a completely riveting performance of a fascinating piece.

As I finish eating porridge on this frosty morning in Greenwich Mean Time Zone, the temperature yet to reach above 0ºC, it remains to offer grateful thanks to Chris and Adele at the MDCH (as well as presenting partners and supporters) for their vision and incredible hard work in keeping artists and communities connected, and for fashioning livestream into mainstream. Concert tickets are modestly priced at $24, with $20 going directly to the artists. To date, they have raised over $900,000 for musicians and technicians. More concerts as part of this Festival and beyond, as well as a delayed viewing service can be found here: melbournedigitalconcerthall.com

Jane Downer 2020

(Cover image: Teresa Noble, Arts Centre Melbourne)

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