When is an encore not an encore? When it starts the programme, as Nicholas Milton explained after the orchestra had began unexpectedly with the “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite. No one would be in the mood for an encore after the Pathetique symphony so let’s have one now – and a second time for luck! Certainly the percussionists enjoyed it and they definitely needed a warm up for an exhausting evening.
Dr Milton has had a stellar career and his enthusiasm and attention to detail were picked up by a talented orchestra. Conducting mostly from memory he virtually demanded his troops to perform at their best in an exacting series of works. He has been Chief Conductor now for eighteen years while the orchestra has been going strong since 1965. How he has the time to be Chief Conductor of three other orchestras in Australia and Europe is difficult to guess.
Nigel Westlake is Willoughby Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in Residence and is one of the best known contemporary Australian composers. “Shimmering Blue” was written as a birthday celebration for the WA Symphony Orchestra and as such is an effervescent jazzy piece. It featured fanfares for the brass and a versatile percussion including xylophone and bells and was all too short.
Sometimes a soloist seems to pervade the atmosphere with his character and this was the case with David Fung who made Schostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto his own. The piece is more a Conversation than a Concerto and flows again with jazzy intonations although Russian influences are prominent. On the many occasions where the soloist and orchestra shared the themes there was no hint of imbalance and it is by no means an easy piece. David though was clearly enjoying himself and though the slow middle movement is more introspective, it was handled in an optimistic manner. It was easy to see how David has been the winner of many prestigious competitions and awards. After, the audience demanded more and the soloist gave us the old encore chestnut, “Sparks” by Moszkowski – I feel the modern trend for an encore from a soloist should be welcomed and, as in this case, an announcement of the piece’s title even more so.
The title of the concert, “Passion” embraces the final work, Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. Winston Churchill’s famous quote as Russia being a “Riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” could be applied to this work. The composer, for once, himself endorsed the nickname “Patetischky” but the Russian word is better translated as “Passionate”. He also called the work a “Program Symphony” but what this means is controversial. Tchaikovsky’s much discussed death soon after is perhaps best described as “Suicide by Person or Persons Unknown” but he was certainly a troubled sole due to his sexuality which he himself could not accept. However, had the composer lived for another twenty years, the work would have been revered without the implications of tragedy.
Nicholas Milton kindly explained the unusual orchestral configuration with first violin on the left and second on the right as being the best to interpret the composer’s themes in which they often started with one instrument but were completed by the other. From the opening notes on the double basses to the famous main theme, the first movement runs the gamut of emotions. A subtle waltz-like second movement is in fact in 5/4 time (‘Did Dave Brubeck hear it?’ I wonder!). The third Allegro is probably the best known with a catchy march-like feel and an incredible performance by the tympani, handled with obvious euphoria by Louis Sharpe. The unusual structure is emphasised by the last movement which not only ends in a minor key but in obscurity with the conductor maintaining a silence of fifteen seconds before allowing applause. At the height of Stalin’s regime, orchestras were ordered to transpose the last two movements in order to end on a triumphant beat. What heresy!
I mentioned the tympanist but the whole orchestra deserves praise for accuracy and interpretation in all three works, no doubt due in part to the unbridled enthusiasm of the conductor. The acoustics at Chatswood rose to the occasion and the programmers deserve an accolade.