It was a dark and stormy night (well early Summer evening actually) and to get to the Melbourne Recital Centre involved some dashing across dark glisteningly wet black streets, Melbourne was experiencing one of its stormiest beginnings to Summer for many a year so the turnout for the Zelman Orchestra was very creditable and thus seemingly unaffected by the weather. However, the humidity certainly affected the Steinway’s tuning for this concert which was a pity particularly for the Brahms piano concerto with its rich chords and sonorities.
Not having heard the Zelman Symphony for over two decades I was very pleased and gratified by the fine sound produced throughout the entire orchestra. The programme was designed to please with Brahms, Rachmaninov and then Brahms again after the interval. Programme notes were informative and to the point so that one was not overburdened with having to read a major thesis before enjoying a concert! Mark Shiell’s conducting was clear and his control of the orchestra was evident. While the orchestra’s great dynamic range was mostly carefully controlled and pleasingly varied, there were a few instances where the orchestra overpowered the piano leading to occasional balance problems.
Opening with the Academic Overture, the orchestra displayed it’s abilities most creditably with some fine string playing particularly from the first violins. Apart from a slightly indistinct start, the ensemble was tight with fine attention to the dynamic range of the piece. At some sections I would have preferred a more driving bass line in this piece, but phrasing was clear and logical.
It was a major undertaking for the soloist, performing not one demanding work with orchestra, but two. Hoang Pham took this all in his stride however and possibly even said to himself “Well at least I do have an interval in between these two works”! All conjecture aside, he performed the two works with brilliance tempered by a fine balance and propriety so that one never felt that the performer got in the way of the music. Notably Pham listened keenly to the orchestra and gave way at moments when that was necessary, playing with the orchestra as a member of a team rather than despite the orchestra. Showing himself thus as a true musician, he also has the ability to hold melodies and counter melodies in his head at one and the same time with the tenor and alto part writing often clearly heard at the same time as the melody. This clarity with its greater dimensions and polyphonic grandeur were characteristic of his playing throughout the evening. In addition his restrained pedalling gave a beautiful translucence to the music. The finger work ranged from refined dexterity to firm and powerful so that one never had any feeling of the considerable technical difficulties in both works getting in the way of the music. After each work Pham shook hands with the conductor and leader of the orchestra fully acknowledging their part in the evening of music making.
Finally after the much deserved full applause, Pham performed the Brahms op 39 no. 15 waltz in A flat major. While any decent 5th grade student could have played this and many of us have played this in the duet version (in A major!), the notable thing again was the refinement and poise of this simple piece that delighted and entertained in the way such a piece should have. Pulling the tempo around, but never excessively, we were suddenly transported from the drama of grand symphonic works to the intimacy and whimsicality of a Viennese ballroom. Pham is a performer that does not desire to impress as much as to please his audience.
In exiting a concert it is always wholesomely pleasant to be able to say at the end of a concert “Well that was good!”.
And then, the mad dash in the rain back to the car….