Orchestral fables take time to catch fire

Dynamic showmanship: conductor Benjamin Northey.Credit:Ron Cerabona

MUSIC
FANTASY AND THE FIREBIRD ★★★
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Melbourne Town Hall, March 8

Under the baton of Benjamin Northey, this exploration of musical storytelling was bookended by two explicitly narrative works alongside a trio of evocative pieces sending each listener on their own imaginative flight of fancy.

In addition to these orchestral fables, the evening also seemed to tell another story. At the heart of many a good yarn is the battle between good and evil. And while “evil” might be somewhat overstating it, this program was certainly a tale of the good – and occasionally, even great – triumphing over the forgettable.

Pianist Kristian Chong came to the rescue with technical brilliance.

The evening commenced with the latter in a sluggish, workmanlike account of the three most done-to-death numbers from Greig’s incidental music to Peer Gynt: Morning Mood, Solveig’s Song and In the Hall of the Mountain King.

Pianist Kristian Chong

Equally lacklustre was Elena Kats-Chernin’s Dance of the Paper Umbrellas. It depicts a ballet of brollies around an imaginary cake, according to the composer’s note, and much like that make-believe confection, the music, while sweet, lacked any real substance.

Pianist Kristian Chong came to the rescue with technical brilliance in Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Next to more grandstanding artists, Chong may not be the most physically expressive performer, but with playing of this clarity and dramatic intent, there was little need for gesticulatory theatrics.

Soprano Jacqueline Porter also proved a heroine of the evening with her rich, honeyed delivery in Rachmaninov’s wordless Vocalise, and a stylishly crafted performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, conducted by Northey with dynamic showmanship, ensured the concert had a happy ending.

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