Ray Chen, Peter Oundjian and the Sydney Symphony

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Conductor Peter Oundjian.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall: 10 February 2011
to be repeated and broadcasted on ABC Classic FM 92.9 on 14 February 2011

Hector Berlioz
Béatrice et Bénédict: Overture

Johannes Brahms
Violin Concerto
Ray Chen – violin

Piotr Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.5

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Peter Oundjian – conductor

It can sometimes seem like a scalping to play an opera overture as a concert piece, but Maestro Oundjian’s apparent delight in Berlioz’ music overcame any such qualms. They played the piece as if it were self-contained with a closer-than-usual study and without the anticipation or apprehension of the visual elements of theatre. It can be nice to hear an overture without the distraction of a rising curtain. It also served nicely as a relatively lighter prelude to the Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The precise stops and timing of the silences were very satisfying (and provided an interesting test of the hall’s acoustical decay time — the sound taking about 3 seconds to decay but fairly evenly across the pitches). The Sydney Symphony brought across the vivid orchestration as effortlessly as singing.

Ray Chen and 1721 'Macmillan' Stradivarius violin.

Mssrs Chen and Oundjian’s interpretation of Brahms’ quite massive violin concerto was absorbing. Mr Chen played with a mellow tone, modulating into earthy low notes, though retaining a degree of hue in these ‘brown’ tones, and also played very sweet singing highs. As a soloist he seemed not wholly divorced from or set above the first violins, but as if his voice had evanesced from them and so his thematic exchanges with them suggested a celestial conversation amongst kindred beings. Indeed all his notes seemed pregnant with expression and anticipation, drawing in the listener. His playing was very lively and energetic, even in the slow movement he kept up a strong passionate pulse neither brooding too long nor rushing any virtuosic phrase, and consistent through the especially long first movement, his interpretation quite mature. He played the unplayable Joachim cadenza — very gutsy but came off with good technique and always with something of his own interpretation shining through. The giocoso of the last movement had quite a lot of rubato and the orchestra followed suite, as they adapted well to the soloist’s style throughout the piece, showing very close communication between conductor, soloist and orchestra, indeed Oundjian and Chen exchanged an enormous hug after the piece.

The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony begins with a rather somber theme in the violas, cellos, and basses and returns to it at the end of the first and beginning of the second movements and the orchestra played it with a prophetic sense. It is a treat to hear the rich tone of this end of the orchestra on its own. The strings trade off in a kind of orchestral Mexican wave, but that metaphor is not entirely apt since Mr Oundjian’s wave was more like a soliton, moving with a tidal precision. This sort of device only in part gives Tchaikovky’s music such an evocative sense of space — whether a relatively mundane space like an imperial ballroom or a sublime, astral and invisible one or a primitive or primeval one. His peculiar style of orchestration, his seemingly effortless creative use of melodies and exotic themes, perfectly placed by their character in the piece, though not so sticky to get permanently suck in one’s head, helps produce this sense of space as well. Mr Oundjian seemed to delight in these diverse themes, sometimes European, sometimes oriental, sometimes very primitive with strong rhythms. The piece features soloists of a sort too — a french horn, a low clarinet, and a trumpet keep returning. The trumpet was sometimes muted sometimes very bright, always with a Louis Armstrong-like vocal quality, working into Mr Oundjian’s detailed interpretation and never made the flutes and other woodwinds completely superfluous. In fact the acoustics in the concert hall were such that this very large orchestra could vibrate the floor of the dress circle without being painfully loud on the ears. The hall does have quite a flat response so no instrument or overtone is unduly amplified, but it is fairly reverberant, with a strong transient response, or at least the decay time is quite long. The french horn had quite a mellow tone for its themes, quite different from its wonted hunting call, also blending beautifully with the tenor trombone. The clarinet had an affinity with and recalled strongly those low strings from the beginning; it had quite a hypnotic effect. The orchestra managed to play with immediacy and a degree of intimacy despite the large concert hall and the large number of players.

The one-two one-two theme of the fourth movement here sounded tribal and ‘primitive,’ and I’m glad Mr Oundjian did not emphasize the march quality of this theme, which could be another interpretation. This is the difference between martial music and dance music and although the two might have been undifferentiated in primeval human art, here the theme was not so much a war dance as something more mystical. Indeed Mr Oundjian seemed to have a strong sensibility for rhythm and the evolution and development of rhythm in this piece, lingering also on the piece’s syncopated themes as a kind of rhythmic ‘purple cow’ (i.e. if you see a purple cow at the side of the road it is natural to want to slow down a little to look, applies more often to harmonies though). This sensibility for rhythm is also (but not wholly) a sensibility for the movement implied in the music: the resonance of the music inside the listener’s volition to move. Perhaps the sense of space and the sense of movement in music generally are not unrelated but both go towards satisfying the human need to explore.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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