★★★★½ Life-affirming musicianship led by an esteemed British clarinettist and maestro.

Melbourne Recital Centre
October 12, 2017

The Recital Centre Series presents an opportunity to hear a smaller manifestation of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra led by instrumentalist directors within the refined acoustic of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. The Series regularly achieves stellar artistic results and happily this was such an occasion. Here an excellent concert was presented under the direction of master British clarinettist Michael Collins. A well-crafted programme comprised Dvořák’s Serenade in D Minor, Op. 44, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Ornamental Air for Basset Clarinet in A and Orchestra (2007, revised 2011), Mendelssohn’s Konzertstück No 1, Op. 113 and Beethoven’s Symphony No 8 in F Major, Op 93.

Clarinettist Michael Collins directed the first work from the end desk of the ensemble that was seated in a semi-circle, was soloist for the Kats-Chernin and Mendelssohn (where he was paired with 2015 ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year Lloyd Van’t Hoff playing basset clarinet) and ultimately conducted the Beethoven symphony. Collins is no stranger to this hall having opened it in February 2009 with a Schubertiade. It was clear that the MSO enjoyed this musical collaboration. Under concertmaster Dale Barltrop there was an unequivocal sense of energy, keenness, pleasure and fun from the first chord to the last.

In the Serenade the wind section excelled, expertly underpinned by Principal Cellist David Berlin and Associate Principal Double Bassist Andrew Moon. The opening Moderato, quasi Marcia impressed for its crisply delineated, old-world, Rococo-inspired march. Directing mainly with his eyes, with a few minimal hand gestures, Collins was well-matched in sound quality by MSO Principal Clarinettist David Thomas. There was careful shaping and tuning, balance and fine rapport throughout the work, particularly in the Minuetto, referencing the attractive, moderately paced Bohemian sousedská folk dance. It was a highly rewarding experience to appreciate with absolute clarity the work’s textures, especially in the ebullient polka Finale, in the superior acoustic of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

Receiving its first performance by the MSO, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Ornamental Air was written for Michael Collins as a companion to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto (though apart from identical instrumentation they are poles apart). Kats-Chernin has been a highly prolific composer since settling in Australia in 1975 and this year she is the Orchestra’s Composer in Residence. The work was jointly commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony, City of London Sinfonia and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. In three sections, Ornamental Air could be described as Minimalist and owing much to the work of American composer Philip Glass. Each section starts with a subsidiary accompanying rhythmic gesture over which melodic ideas are presented for the soloist that are comprehensively worked through. The work was an effective showpiece for the instrument exploring its rich sonorities with runs, arpeggios, use of flutter-tongue, trills and glissandi across its range. With nods to folk music and jazz it was all easy to listen to. But I have observed that if there are 20 different ways of saying exactly the same thing, Kats-Chernin will do so, without any apparent impetus to summarise or abbreviate. The performance by soloist and ensemble could not have been bettered abounding in rhythmic drive and infectious enthusiasm. The composer was warmly acknowledged by audience.

Excellence was maintained in the concert’s second half opening with Mendelssohn’s Konzertstück No 1 written in a day and later orchestrated. This appealing work was commissioned by Munich Court musicians Heinrich Joseph Baerman and his son Carl. It is said that the fee was ample servings of Mendelssohn’s favourite Dampfnudeln and Rahmstrudel on his next visit to Munich. Lloyd Van’t Hoff’s performance was superb beside his soloist partner Collins. Here was life-affirming music making. Collins’s approach to Beethoven’s Symphony No 8 was refreshing, conveying a lightness of touch and enthusiastic verve throughout. His conducting was minimal, succinct and intelligent. As a result rhetoric was crystal clear and the combined ensemble in this acoustic bloomed wonderfully.  Especially noteworthy was the thrilling crack of period timpani throughout (historically informed, hand-cranked, calf-skinned replicas owned by the MSO and played with utmost virtuosity by Guest Principal Brent Miller) and the two fine trumpets in F.