Review / CSO’s ‘spine tingling’ concert

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Harry Bennetts

CANBERRA Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Nicholas Milton changed the orchestra seating configuration for this concert. The cellos were placed next to the first violins, the second violins occupied the normal cello spot and the basses moved to the rear of the orchestra on a riser behind the wind section. This set up quite intrigued me so I sought out Dr Milton post concert who interestingly explained that the seating plan he’d employed was in fact the standard layout for orchestras right up until the time of Mahler (1860-1911).

I’m not sure if the change resulted in different sound quality, balance or projection but the concert got away to a terrific start with a sparkling presentation of the “Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila”. Apart from some ragged string playing, during the first exposed quieter section, the piece flew along at an excellent tempo ensuring an exciting performance both aurally and visually. The rapid technical challenges were met with seeming ease, brass was particularly well balanced and dynamic contrast was pleasingly most evident.

Australian violin soloist Harry Bennetts is aged only in his early 20’s but what a player! He is the winner of the Kendall National Violin Competition and the Australian National Academy of Music Concerto Competition. His performance was quite stunning.

Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D major” was set up beautifully with excellent pianissimo dynamics and tight tempo control from the orchestra then taken over by the soloist with playing of absolute precision, wonderful tonal quality and a clarity which ensured every note was clearly discernible. A strictly controlled accelerando into the first movement cadenza was quite spine tingling.   

The work was originally dedicated by Tchaikovsky to a violin virtuoso, Leopold Auer, who refused to play it because it was far too difficult but no such issues for Bennetts. His surety and confidence were well justified, in fact the audience was so taken by his interpretation of the first movement that a standing ovation and lengthy applause just happened out of the blue. A deal of settling was required before he showed off a more tender style during the andante second movement, which was sublime in its delicacy. It was no surprise that a second standing ovation greeted the young man when the concerto ended with the flashy allegro vivacissimo finale.

I do hope every aspiring young violin student grabs the opportunity to see and hear this fine player. He will inspire them. I’d also note that Dr Milton conducted the concerto from memory with no score. That is also a quite remarkable achievement.

How to return from interval and follow such a performance? The Sibelius “Symphony No 2 in D major” was a good choice. It is broadly expansive and eerily atmospheric so instrumental colours were to the fore. Megan Pampling’s oboe was haunting and wonderfully clear, the pizzicato work from the basses and cellos at the start of the second movement was absolutely precise and accurate, the complete unit sound from the brass was tight and very well balanced and the passing over of rhythmic passages between sections in the third movement was seamless.

This was a fine orchestral concert well appreciated by a discerning audience.

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