Saturday 25 February 2023 – Fate & Destiny
Geelong’s Symphony Orchestra continues to innovate and surprise, with this excellent concert evidence of both. It contained just three pieces, all lesser-known works by Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Each was carefully selected to meet the overall theme of ‘Fate and Destiny’, meaning that this could have been a concert of orchestral doom, downfall and drama. But in the hands of conductor Richard Davis, solo pianist Hoang Pham and Geelong’s premier orchestra, this was by no means a negative experience. This concert was absorbing, informative and delightfully uplifting, drawing long and appreciative final applause. The surprise was that such an unusual and challenging choice of material was delivered with so much stye and ease by our still relatively new orchestra. This concert marked six years, almost to the day, since its first appearance.
The innovation came from conductor Davis and concertmaster Markiyan Melnychenko’s detailed and highly informative explanations to the backgrounds and meanings of each work, expertly dovetailed into the concert’s format. The concert opened with arguably its best-known piece, Mendelssohn’s lyrically layered and intricately woven Fingal’s Cave, executed with the skill and professional flair now expected from our GSO and its favourite guest conductor. But after the applause had died down, conductor Davis put down his baton, picked up a cordless mic and explained that the composer didn’t actually write the work while he was a ship’s passenger inside the dramatic Hebridean cave, as is popularly believed, because he was so stricken by sickness on that voyage that he couldn’t write until days afterwards. But such was his recall of the occasion that the work contained such musical details as the swell of currents, rhythm of the ship’s engine and cathedral-like echoes inside the huge cave.
The conductor followed this with an illuminating preview of the concert’s next piece, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G major Op.58, explaining its complexity and difficulties and why the work disappeared after its premiere until it was revived by Mendelssohn some 28 years later. He then introduced pianist Hoang Pham – like the conductor, world-rated and an excellent friend of the GSO – before soloist, conductor and orchestra played the challenging piece with its awkward interactions, long pauses and apparent disjointed themes, bringing them together with glorious unity and clarity that drew long, loud applause and many curtain calls for soloist Hoang.
Following a short interval, with the musicians in position, orchestra leader Markiyan Melnychenko entered to the customary polite applause. But instead of lifting his violin to play the key note to tune his players, he placed it carefully on his seat, picked up the microphone and gave a detailed introduction to the final work, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36, explaining its significance to its composer and to the nations of Ukraine and Russia. This told of the passions that the work engendered, its fatalistic triumphal elements and relevance today – all of which were again expertly translated into brilliant music once conductor Davis returned. The baton-master was at his eye-catching best as he gestured, cajoled, air-caressed and commanded his orchestra to ever-greater heights.
This concert was arguably the most expressive Richard Davis that Geelong has yet seen. Always immaculately turned out in white tie and tails, the conductor’s energetic, beautifully over-exaggerated dramatic gestures gave the impression that he had determined to wear out his suit from the inside, lining first. But aside from this flamboyance and passion, conductor David was quite clearly extremely proud of every section of his orchestra, returning again and again to invite different sections to share the long, loud applause at the concert’s end. Could it be that, having won over Geelong’s Symphony Orchestra with his charm and passion, Richard Davis is now working on capturing our audiences? If so, he would have brought several hundred into the fold with this excellent concert.
And that can only be explained as our city’s Fate and Destiny.
– Colin Mockett
Saturday 22 October 2022 – Bohemia and Beyond
From its Bohemia and Beyond title, patrons might have been expecting Gypsy violins or folk tunes. But the key words of that title were and Beyond. For this concert displayed not only the panorama-wide scope of central European music, it also showed the breadth of knowledge, skills and pulling power of Geelong’s premier orchestra.The concert began with a beautiful soaring patriotic melody Ma Vlast: Vltava (Die Moldau) from Czech born composer Bedřich Smetana.
It set the scene perfectly for what was to follow, which was the GSO’s very own Bohemian Rhapsody, in that they laid before us a rich selection of glorious music with, really, only loose geographical connections to Bohemia. For what followed that opening was a glittering masterpiece from guest pianist Stefan Cassomenos whose smiling, comfortable appearance and relaxed style belied his complete mastery of a highly complex but gorgeous piece – (German-born but well-travelled) Robert Schumann’s lyrically wonderful Piano concerto in A minor Op.54. This lyrical masterpiece was delivered in silky, dazzling style with perfectly weighted sympathetic backing from the GSO. It drew long applause and several curtain calls for both soloist and orchestra.
This also demonstrated the pulling power that our GSO now commands. That our young, (six-year-old, two of them locked down) orchestra is now able to to attract world-ranked soloists of Mr Cassomenos’ quality, then compliment his playing with such style said much about the ability of our players. But more than this, it highlighted the extraordinary empathy of our now-regular conductor, Richard Davis. For Conductor Davis appears to have a special relationship with our orchestra. Watching his podium style and mannerisms is almost as entertaining as the beautiful music they produce together. At times his immaculate tail-suited figure appears to be pleading with his players, then, he’ll be smiling sweet congratulations at them. When the occasion demands, his gestures appear to embrace all 65 of them, while, at triumphal moments, he adopts almost Jagger-esque chest thrust forward poses to transmit his pride. It’s all wonderful stuff, and quite clearly effective. And the whole gamut was evident in this concert’s second half, which was given over to Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’.
This piece was written after the composer travelled widely among African-Americans in the USA. It must have one of the most recognised musical riffs in it’s opening theme, which was lifted to become the brass-band-favourite song ‘Going Home’. But when that melody was played on the Cor Anglais to introduce echoes from strings and woodwind, it became a hauntingly beautiful part of a glorious major work that embellished, built on and and entwined its melody towards a powerfully brilliant brass climactic-flourish ending. It was all wonderful stuff, drawing long and loud applause and making for a special final concert for our Orchestra’s 2022 season.
And it whet our appetites for what musical treats this group can conjure for us in 2023.
– Colin Mockett
Saturday 7 May 2022 – Pastorale
I don’t think that the Geelong Symphony Orchestra realises just how good it is. This concert could have graced any concert hall in the country up to and including the Sydney Opera House. It was musically and technically perfect, beautifully presented and excellent in every aspect – bar one. And that was excusable.
The content, which began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending featuring a wonderfully talented guest violinist in Erica Kennedy, sensitively and perceptively supported by the GSO. This was followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No.6, the Pastoral, which saw the orchestra in full masterful flight.
But this choice of programme, with its themes of birdsong, babbling brooks and peaceful countryside was so out of step with current circumstances that it took a while to win over its audience. For they had arrived scarved and waterproofed in Geelong’s unexpected first autumn cold snap of icy wind and rain. What’s more this was an audience with nerves jangled by weeks of a blanket news cycle dominated by European war and a squabbling, seemingly endless domestic election campaign.
You would think those themes of peace and tranquillity would have calmed and warmed its audience and indeed it did. But it took a little time. And the event’s unseasonal aspect was really beyond the organiser’s control. It was due to Covid lockdowns and postponements. And I believe that the high quality of the concert’s first piece contributed, too. I’ll explain.
This performance of Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending was so breathtakingly beautiful that rather than calming and relaxing us, we audience were energised and awake. On the edges of our seats, even. We were all aware that we were experiencing something very special.
The Lark is a work of exquisite elegance with its silences as meaningful as its glorious swoops and crescendos. This, Erica Kennedy understands completely and performed exactly. I can’t recall the last time I sat in the Costa experiencing such pin-drop silence between every perfectly timed graceful musical stanza.
Erica took several well-earned curtain calls before the orchestra reformed for the evening’s major work. Given the pastoral theme, she was expertly shepherded by conductor Richard Davis.
Richard has conducted the GSO on several occasions. Enough to understand and bond with our musicians and he invariably draws excellent performances from them. This was one of those occasions.
A bonus is that Richard’s conducting style is wonderful to watch. It’s a mesmerising mix of air-stabbing baton, embracing, smoothing gestures and dramatic swoops using both arms to conjure crescendos. All delivered with smiling elegance. And it’s so effective that far from being calmed, we were again energised by both conductor and orchestra before the skills of Beethoven took over and we became relaxed by the music.
The concert’s program pointed out that Beethoven’s Pastoral is unusual in that it comprises five movements, the final three performed as one. Such was the quality of the jaunty introduction and smooth lyricism of the second that the audience broke into spontaneous applause before that busy, all-encompassing final movement with its tranquil expressions, musical squall and post-storm soothing serenity. All of which was handled by the GSO with such faultless expertise that the serene finale was followed by warm, long and highly appreciative applause. This saw conductor Davis in full shepherding mode. He bowed, beaming, and left the stage, to return and proudly invite each musical section to stand and take their bows. Several times each.
A special appreciation was given to stand-in concertmaster Robert John, whose unspectacular, but efficient and effective skills matched and complemented those of the entire orchestra.
It’s enough to say that this concert, and the GSO, left its audience in a warm and highly appreciative mood – one that was very different to the way they had arrived.
– Colin Mockett
– Colin Mockett
Saturday 27 February 2021 – M O Z A R T
This was the first concert since the Covid lockdown for Geelong’s premier orchestra, its audience and venue, and the ongoing restrictions led to a tentative start. The foyer felt strange with people attempting to self-distance around odd bottlenecks at registration and entry points. Once inside the auditorium, orchestra members self-consciously peeled off and stowed facemarks as they took their places, tuned, then patiently waited while their audience arrived slower than usual, due to those foyer controls.
The Costa, newly renovated during 2020 lockdown, showed elements of understated swank with refurbished seats and a subtle repaint from a quiet, toned-down palette. Even the orchestra’s seating was pristine and new. The restrictions meant that the venue was opened fully, while perhaps ⅔ full, with every audience member dutifully masked. Following that initial five-minute delay came a formal side-of-stage Covid announcement from GSO board member Jon Mamonski, who listed mask and exit instructions – and all this added to the anticipation as well as the occasion’s faintly unfamiliar feel.
So when conductor Richard Davis took the stage – to warmer than usual applause – he began with a short impromptu speech thanking the audience for being there, explaining just how important it was for musicians to play in a live audience setting. Then he turned, faced his orchestra, and together they validated his words by presenting a concert of musical beauty and sheer mastery. The choice of all-Mozart for this comeback concert was absolutely fitting.
The opening overture from The Marriage of Figaro was perfect, with its familiar themes and flawless execution setting a high standard for what was to come. And those expectations were met – then exceeded. For next came Mozart’s flute concerto in D major with orchestra and guest soloist Derek Jones delivering the work’s three movements with verve, vitality – and a level of professional skill that denied their long lay-off. This piece’s delicate and various musical patterns, built around flowing romantic movements with sparkling highlights and twinkling humorous spells were perfectly presented by our orchestra, while its conductor and soloist displayed their different personas.
Flautist Derek is no showman. His conservative-suited appearance and unassuming restrained style contrasted with conductor Richard’s tail-suited flamboyance, which flowed seamlessly from stiff formal pointing to a form of rooted crouch while grasping handfuls of air – gesturing a mute plead to his players.The result of this visually delightful combination was, well, wonderful. A beautifully delivered rendition of a glorious work, with an additional bonus – that neat visual contradiction.
But then, after a short reshuffle of chairs came the concert’s major work, Mozart’s Symphony No 41 “The Jupiter” which is a musically challenging piece, being the composer’s longest and final symphony. But it is wonderfully gratifying to the listener with soaring crescendos, contrasting motifs, musical patterns and closing fanfares. Geelong’s GSO delivered it with its now-familiar skilled, professional ease to warm, sustained applause with conductor Davis returning again and again to encourage different sections to take their individual acclaim.
In all, this was a concert of elegant splendour and one deserving a full house – as I’m sure the orchestra will gain when the circumstances return.
Bravo, orchestra – and welcome back!
– Colin Mockett
The Geelong Symphony Orchestra will present Vienna – City of Dreams in the Costa Hall Saturday August 7. It’s recommended to book early.
Saturday 22 February 2020 – Celebrating Beethoven
GSO’s scintillating celebration for Beethoven’s Birthday
2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and orchestras around the world have celebrations and themed concerts planned. Geelong’s Symphony Orchestra was among the first – the composer’s actual birthday isn’t until December 16 – and this superb concert has set a very high standard for those to follow.
Our orchestra achieved this by doing what it does best. It used no fireworks or gimmicks, just presented two of the maestro’s best-known works simply and elegantly with a couple of star guests. This allowed the beauty of Beethoven’s music to shine for itself, wordlessly explaining why his works have remained at the pinnacle of world music for more than two centuries.
Because the pieces chosen – his Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 and his Symphony No.5 in C minor Op.67 – though instantly recognisable as Beethoven masterworks, are quite different. The first is deep and complex, full of variations and style changes, and it’s notoriously difficult to play. The second, fifth symphony, is perhaps his best known orchestral work because of its signature dum dum dum du-um intro – the WWII era ‘V’ radio signature – recurring in reappearing in patterns and motifs and building to a powerful, majestic grand finale. It’s a gloriously monumental piece that is uplifting when delivered well, magnificent in the hands of a top-class orchestra. But such a demanding work can make a merely competent orchestra appear embarrassingly wanting.
In this concert, and with those guests, the first work was brilliant; the second – magnificent. The guests were as different as the works they presented. They were the internationally acclaimed and universally admired English conductor Richard Davis and multi-awarded, much-in-demand Australian violin soloist, Emily Sun. He was intense, animated, gesturing. His unique style appeared to be silently pleading his players while moving from an almost predatory crouch position to one miming magnanimous praise. Meanwhile Emily, statuesque in a long glamorous gown, stood unmoving, calm and totally absorbed through her piece’s three minute orchestral intro before joining it, then taking it into different realms in a scintillating 20-minute performance delivered completely from memory. She played mostly with eyes closed, absorbed, swaying and glancing only occasionally at the energetic conductor beside her. But between them – and our excellent orchestra – they produced a divine performance. And Emily’s smile was as broad as Richard’s as they took no fewer than six curtain calls and performed an Elgar showpiece encore.
Following the interval and those signature first two bars, conductor Davis had our orchestra to himself and together they presented a memorable Beethoven’s Fifth that was packed with colour, vibrancy, majesty and class. The strings were, as always, exceptional. The brass was bold and lusty, the woodwind sweet and sublime. The single-person timpani quite literally never missed a beat – and every one was perfect. The packed Costa Hall audience hung on every note and at the finish, applauded long and loud, demanding curtain call after curtain call.
– Colin Mockett
Friday 26 October 2019 – New York to Norway
In its short four-year history, our Geelong Symphony Orchestra has earned a reputation for excellence and another for its innovative programming. This exceptional concert was an example of both.For under that bland New York To Norway title, our orchestra presented the jazz and pizzazz of George Gershwin musical showmanship alongside the national pride of Sibelius’ Finlandia and the romantic lyricism of Grieg’s piano concerto. All were performed with accomplished mastery by the GSO under the baton of one of its favoured conductors, Fabian Russell. But then came the programming inspiration that turned an excellent concert into a truly memorable one. First was to set the two Gershwin numbers Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris before the interval, with Finlandia and the beautiful Grieg piece – frequently referred as ‘the perfect concerto’- to provide a resounding finish. This meant the concert began with Gershwin’s familiar jazz-flavoured soaring clarinet flourish and carefully built to Grieg’s so-satisfying piano-led full orchestral dramatic finale. That was enough to produce a quality concert, given the augmented (72 member) Geelong orchestra’s competence and confidence. But their master stroke was to engage the remarkable Australian pianist Hoang Pham as guest soloist.
Hoang’s style is not flamboyant. His persona is quiet, neat and smilingly polite; reticent, even. But seated at the piano, Hoang showed the mastery that won him the Best Australian Pianist at the Sydney International Piano Competition and subsequently took him around the world. He accompanied our orchestra to a Rhapsody in Blue that would surely have pleased Gershwin himself, with its Hollywood-esque soaring dramas perfectly blended with 1920s-style syncopations. It’s a big piece, some 20 minutes or more, and Hoang played it from memory without the benefit of sheet music.
Next, the GSO, and conductor Fabian Russell showed their own flair in bringing all the musical shades and hues that Gershwin used to paint his American in Paris, with its traffic bustle and contemplative moments with such verve to leave us eager for more after the interval. We were not disappointed. The GSO’s Finlandia displayed first the chill of that country’s northern climate coupled with the fire of Sibelius’ nationalistic pride in a mighty performance that highlighted the strength of its brass and percussion sections. Then came that commanding Hoang Pham performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16 (Edvard Grieg’s only piano concerto) that led to such sustained applause – from audience and orchestra – that was to bring Hoang back for four curtain calls and two delightful bonus solo pieces by Chopin.
You know what they say, you had to be there to experience it… but, dear reader, you can. Because at this concert, the GSO launched its 2020 Costa Hall season, quietly on the back of its programme. It looks exciting and innovative, with concerts celebrating Beethoven, Strauss and Tales of Love and Death. I’ll be there and can’t recommend highly enough that you come, too. You’ll find such pride in your orchestra, along with your city and its growing, glowing culture.
– Colin Mockett
3 August 2019 – The Four Seasons
Vivaldi’s Four Seasons suite has to be among the world’s favourite pieces of classical music, even though, conversely, many people wouldn’t know its title. In the 21st Century, the work has been chopped up and used for everything from TV commercials to film scores to phone-hold and background elevator music.
And again, for such a well-known work, it is relatively rare to hear all four segments brought together as a concert piece at a single sitting.
There are reasons for this. The works, written for stringed instruments, use only a chamber orchestra, not a full symphony. And when performed together, their duration is still shorter than expected for a modern musical concert.
But that didn’t deter the GSO, which presented the works in a splendidly spirited Saturday afternoon session led by a truly world-class musician in Rebecca Chan.
The result left its Costa Hall audience delighted – and awed.
The pared-down GSO consisted of just 17 players; 12 violins, three cellos, a double bass and harpsichord.
Dressed in formal black, the players mostly stood to perform on the otherwise empty Costa stage.
And, while the orchestra was reduced, their programme had been expanded, with the addition of an extra concerto from Vivaldi and a complimentary work by JS Bach.
There was an extra element, too, with GSO president Wendy Galloway adding clear, concise and informative introductions to each piece.
But topping all this, was the brilliance, glamour and style of Rebecca Chan.
The brilliance from her masterful performance; glamour as she swayed and sashayed every note in her signature flame-red dress – and style from her polished leadership of the players around her. For this ensemble had no other conductor. Rebecca transmitted her directions through the faintest gestures while playing. These were tiny glances, minuscule shrugs and flashes of eye-contact with the other players, most notably with concertmaster and GSO leader Olivier Bonnecci.
Together, these two drew from their players a series of flawlessly energetic virtuoso performances, first of Vivaldi’s Spring, with its chirruping birdsong, then a warm and languid Summer, before Rebecca left the stage and Olivier led a reduced ensemble, (three violins, three violas, three cellos bass and harpsichord) through a splendid performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no 3, with its melodic echos of Vivaldi’s works.
After an interval came Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor Op 10, which has a rolling format using four violin soloists. These were Rebecca, Olivier and young Geelong players Jamie Parker and Amy You. All were faultless and flawless in their demeanour and musicianship, with Amy channeling Rebecca in a flowing crimson gown.
She quickly changed back to black uniform during Wendy’s introduction for the next, concluding two Seasons, Autumn and Winter, with their musical depictions of hunting, thunder, lightning and cosy warm firesides all delivered with the concert’s now-familiar masterful energy and skill.
It all made for a vibrant, brilliant and totally memorable concert.
Rebecca last played with the GSO in 2016 when they performed Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto together.
That, too, was memorable, leaving a strong anticipation for the next collaboration. Please may it be soon…
– Colin Mockett
2 March 2019 – Two Romantics
Call it serendipity, happenstance, providence… Either way, it occurred to this critic at this concert.
It really began on Wednesday, when I had surgery to remove a cataract and place a new lens in my left eye. By Saturday, I was seeing things with astonishing clarity and distinction. Not that that should have made any difference at the Geelong Symphony concert. This was, after all, showcasing the music of two great romantic composers, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. So it was to be a treat for the ears, not the eyes.
But then we were handed tickets to the third row, front and centre which allowed a remarkably close-up view of the pre-concert string section. With my new enhanced vision, I saw things unnoticed before. Like concertmaster Olivier Bonnici’s cheeky mustard-coloured socks, Emily Frazer’s look of concentration as she led the warm-up, lead cellist Timmothy Oborne’s laid-back stance contrasting Jamie Parker’s total concentration; violinist Eve Gu’s beautiful black-lace shoes… Then guest conductor Richard Davis took the stage in full tail suit, white tie conflicting just a little with the GSO’s more relaxed outfits of men in dark lounge suits, women in black ensembles.
Then the opening piece began. It was Brahms Academic Festival Overture Op. 80, and nicely suitable for Deakin University’s showplace hall with its themes of student drinking songs. It was presented in what is now the accepted GSO manner – neat, faultless delivery in cool professional style.
Still I had no real inkling of what was to come as the Costa’s Steinway grand piano was moved centre-stage for the evening’s second piece of romance, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 Op.23. This was to be played by Rio Xiang, the young man who had won last year’s Youth Classical Music competition in Geelong, with appearing at this concert part of his prize. Rio is a tall, slender 20-year-old who appeared reserved, perhaps a little awkward as he took his welcome applause and sat at the piano.
Conductor Richard Davis is, by contrast, an old hand. He’s chief conductor and head of orchestral studies at Melbourne Conservatorium and he regularly conducts orchestras worldwide including the BBC Philharmonic. He holds a top reputation for bringing the best out of orchestras and soloists, using a unique style of expressions, flourishes, smiles, frowns and gestures.
As this is directed at the players, it’s usually unseen by the audience who would simply see the back of that elegant tail suit.
Unless you happened to be in seat C30 in the Costa Hall, 2 metres away, in direct line of sight between conductor and soloist – and with newly enhanced vision.
I can tell you this piece was enthralling. Illuminating. It was thrilling, compelling stuff, watching Rio’s pale long fingers dancing his keyboard for the 20-minute piece without sheet music while being wordlessly led, stimulated, encouraged by his conductor who twisted and turned to make eye contact while still in full control of the orchestra.
I should also add that the music was wonderful, faultless – and that it drew long, loud applause and no fewer than four call-backs before the concert’s interval.
The concert’s second half consisted entirely of Brahms’ Symphony No 1 in C minor Op. 68 in its four movements. There was no piano, no Rio, just gorgeous, flowing, soaring lush romantic music played with the GSO’s gloss, style and verve. But, for me, it was just a bit anticlimactic following that (literally) brilliant Tchaikovsky piece. I felt privileged to have been in that place at that time.
So this concert redefined memorable for this critic, who now looks forward to hearing – and seeing – the GSO’s next concert, when the gorgeous Rebecca Chan plays all four of Vivaldi’s seasons. I just hope this vision enhancement doesn’t fade.
– Colin Mockett
27 October 2018 – The Mighty 9th
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was his last, and it’s widely acknowledged as his greatest work. He was completely deaf when he wrote it, working the music out using mathematical patterns. On its Vienna opening performance, Beethoven sat beside the conductor, giving the tempo for each piece. At the end, the lead contralto singer had to turn him around to see the auditorium applauding. Knowing that he couldn’t hear them, many applauded by gestures and waving handkerchiefs.
In Geelong, they gave it a standing ovation. 194 years later.
It was something of a surprise to learn that this was the first time Beethoven’s Ninth had been performed in Geelong. That’s probably because the circumstances needed to create it – meaning a fully fledged, accomplished symphony orchestra and chorus with a leader and conductor with the knowledge and expertise to prepare them, along with a venue to accommodate them as well as an audience large enough to justify the expense – hadn’t come together before. But they did for this performance, and in remarkable style.
For the evening had begun with the Geelong Symphony Orchestra in a more restrained role, behind piano soloist Stefan Cassomenos as he delivered Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 15 in Bb Major with the accomplished flair of a showman. Stefan is a vibrant and highly visual musician, whose concentration was such that he appeared to respect every note, even those he wasn’t playing, by the use of small nods, movements, even occasional Satchmo-like mopping of his brow with a flourished white handkerchief. But along with this, his skill delivering Mozart’s dazzling musical patterns and colours in the piece’s three distinct movements was superb. Enough to earn three curtain calls alongside elegant Maestro Fabian Russell, whose delicate control of his orchestra had supported and embellished every note. Then, after a 20 minute interval, the Costa Steinway was wheeled away and the stage was literally set for Geelong’s orchestra to take on Beethoven’s masterwork.
There were 76 musicians under Maestro Russell’s baton, while high above in the venue’s choir gallery, was the newly-formed GSO Chorus. This comprised some 60 experienced singers drawn from at least five local choirs surrounding the evening’s four soloists. They were the delicately balanced and matched Lee Abrahmsen (soprano) Belinda Paterson (alto) Brenton Spiteri (tenor) and Manfred Pohlenz (bass).
In truth, this chorus was in the privileged position to sit back and enjoy the majesty and glory of the work’s first three movements as Beethoven built his musical moods from quietude to majesty, slow rhythms to glorious brass fanfares using only the orchestra. Each movement was beautiful and complete in its own right, but all lead to the work’s ultimate, majestic finale. That was when chorus, soloists and orchestra came together to deliver the most magnificent Ode To Joy that I’m sure Geelong has ever heard.
It was spine-tingling stuff, and rightly drew that standing ovation. Every musician, singer and performer involved can stand proud having created such a beautiful concert. And Geelong can stand proud, too, for nurturing an orchestra capable of presenting such musical perfection.
– Colin Mockett
23 June 2018 – Spanish Fire
It’s GSO’s policy, and its practice, to present challenging as well as popular works, whilst opening its players to the experience of guest conductors. All three of these occurred with this event, and the outcome was an outstanding concert of pride and rare beauty.
The pride was in the quality of Geelong’s still-fledgling symphony orchestra. It’s sometimes difficult to comprehend that this is only the GSO’s third year, for it now plays with the confidence and maturity of an established musical institution. As for the beauty, that came from the choice of programme, which was Spanish themed. This Spanish Fire began with the smouldering passion of Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga’s Symphony in D Major, which is a difficult, challenging piece of rich, complex musical patterns and textures amid smooth calming passages that was presented by our orchestra with accomplished ease. Then followed the jaunty flickering of Manuel de Falla’s equally testing Suite from the Three Cornered Hat, also completed with verve.
Following an interval, the flames intensified when solo guitarist Matt Withers joined in. Matt and the orchestra presented the Basque composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with its well-known second Adagio and equally popular third movement Allegro Gentille. For this reviewer those pieces evoked images not of Spanish plains but of American films, because snippets have been used so many times by Hollywood to evoke the barren western desert atmosphere. So the opportunity to hear the pieces in their full splendor and correct concepts was appreciated.
The long, loud applause drew what was officially an encore piece – though it was listed in the programme, and its composer was in the audience – of James Mountain’s Spanish Romance for Guitar and Orchestra, a lush and sumptuous work of musical romance that was equally well received – before Matt left and the Orchestra took on another popular piece in Enrique Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas. And finally, stoked and enhanced by the addition of extra brass and percussion players, the orchestra finished the evening with a blazing rendition of Emmanuel Chabrier’s best-known work, the catchy and popular España. That was the structure of the evening.
But what made this concert exceptional was not only the high quality of all round performance, but the input of guest conductor Warwick Stendgårds. He’s a slim, middle-aged neatly turned out man who appeared to have energy and vitality to spare. He looked a little like former premier John Brumby – but this was a John Brumby primed on red cordial. Because Warwick Stendgårds conducts with a sort of all-encompassing ‘restrained spectacular’ style, his body swaying with the musical rhythms, his left hand flourishing wide circles while the right wields his baton like a sabre, sometimes stabbing the air, sometimes broadly sweeping but always demanding attention. All this was augmented with little nods, smiles and gestures toward his orchestra – and sometimes, to the audience, too. I’m quite sure that this was a warm learning experience for our orchestra’s younger players, for they responded, literally with gusto.
And for the audience, this night of Spanish Fire made for a blazing success on a cold Geelong night.
– Colin Mockett
24 February 2018 – Rhapsody
Geelong’s premier Orchestra displayed its impressive development with this accomplished concert of challenging, lyrical and fascinating pieces. It was under the baton of energetic guest conductor, Brett Kelly, who, with the minimum of audience contact, still managed to convey an air of an unpretentious maestro with a pride in his orchestra.
This came across strongly in the opening piece, Khatchaturian’s Adagio from Spartacus, a work familiar from its TV appearances, especially as the lyrical, background to those magnificent tall ships on The Onedin Line. But here it was, in all of its smooth, soaring majesty being faultlessly presented by our own 60- piece orchestra.
And building on that admirable opening, came what was probably as memorable a performance as ever seen on the Costa stage.
It was Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme from Paganini – some 20 minutes of gloriously changing musical textures, patterns and colours, some familiar, some spiky, others lush and lyrical, all delivered by another self-effacing master musician, guest pianist Hoang Pham, with the orchestra taking very much a support role. Young, slim, immaculate in appearance as well as presentation, Mr Pham played the complicated pieces with elegance and elan – and completely from memory, without a single sheet of music on the Costa Steinway.
This drew what can only be described as a remarkable piece of musical appreciation, in that the performance did not receive a standing ovation -Geelong audiences are notoriously grudging with these. But instead, the audience delivered loud, steady, insistent applause that brought conductor Brett and soloist Hoang back for bow after bow – until Huang broke the cycle by resuming his seat at the piano to quietly announce he would play ‘a little bit of Haydn,’ which turned out to be a
brilliant showpiece that brought another storm of applause continuing long after he had left the stage, until he was to return again, take his seat and deliver another, quite different musical delight, before the pattern repeated, drawing yet a third impromptu solo.
After that sparkling celebration, and a short interval to recover, the orchestra returned to present the concert’s main event, Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (Pathetique) Op. 74 B Minor. This emotional piece, written just weeks before the composer’s death, contains moods that lift from lyrical contentment to the depths of despair as he raged against his inevitable end. It’s a moving, challenging piece that was delivered by our orchestra with sensitivity, feeling – and an overarching air of professional competence.
Because by taking on such a challenging programme, then delivering it with immaculate skill and style, the Geelong Symphony was musically announcing that it had arrived as a significant entity on the Victorian musical scene. It was received with that long and sustained applause – but this time no modestly flamboyant encores. And it was evident from the audience mood in the after-concert foyer that Geelong can today stand with immense pride behind its impressive, fully-fledged fully professional symphony orchestra. Bravo! (delivered standing).
– Colin Mockett
27 & 28 October 2017 – Last Night of The Proms
The Last Night of the Proms is typically fun-filled and a little silly, perhaps beyond the comfort zone of most of Geelong’s concert-going audience. Our compere Colin Mockett appeared at first in costume, cape and helmet, and announced that we were to hear ‘a selection of Darth Vader’s greatest hits’, which helped to set the tone of the evening as the first item was from the Star Wars Suite by John Williams. His masterful and dynamic orchestration was excitingly reproduced by our orchestra, conducted with verve by Dr. Kevin Cameron, and the standard of performance was set at a very high level.
Some of the history and popularity of the Prom series (originally ‘promenade’ concerts, held in parks in London) was outlined, before the introduction of 24-year-old Riley Skevington, recent national winner of the Australian Youth Classical Music prize. He played the 3rd movement of Brahms’ Concerto in D, written in 1878 at about the time of the earliest Proms and regarded as one of the greatest, with all the features of virtuosic and sensitive violin playing.
The Geelong Chorale, augmented to about 70 voices in the gallery and rehearsed over recent months by Allister Cox, joined the orchestra for Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances no. 17, a perennial favourite at The Proms. This exotic-sounding music, with gorgeous oboe and horn solos and plenty of percussive highlights, was a resounding success, with excellent balance achieved between choir and players.
Manfred Pohlenz brought his huge bass baritone voice and theatrical gestures to one of the most familiar of all classical pieces to Geelong’s population, the Toreador’s Song from Carmen, sung mostly in French but with a cheeky gesture to football fans by the addition of a ‘Cats’ scarf and jumper, at which point Manfred encouraged all to join the singing of our team’s theme song, in English of course.
After interval, William Walton’s Crown Imperial (A Coronation March) made a fine brassy fanfare with lots of percussion featured. Then the audience was encouraged to sing along with the Chorale to Hubert Parry’s wartime anthem ‘Jerusalem’ (orchestrated in fine style by Sir Edward Elgar) – but while the tune is well known, the words are not and a search of the program was futile. Elgar’s own Pomp and Circumstance March, another regular feature of Proms final nights, finally prompted some (rather subdued) flag-waving, and the singing would have been joined far more enthusiastically had we access to the words.
A strong rendition of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus followed, of which many can sing various parts (not necessarily consistently or accurately!) from memory, and audience members valiantly tried to do so. The final item was an adventurous choice, an Australian work by a contemporary composer, Gavin Lockley (not yet 40 years old) which combined the singing of Dorothea McKellar’s poem ‘My Country’ over ‘Australia’ repeated by the choir. It also updated the orchestral requirements with the inclusion of guitar, bass and drum kit, and on first hearing was stirring but a little confusing. It is to be hoped that further performances will make such modern works better known. However, applause for the performers was long and very enthusiastic and after some hesitation resulted in an encore of Elgar’s March in its entirety, which should have been expected and could probably have been abbreviated.
Geelong Symphony Orchestra and The Geelong Chorale are to be congratulated for the standard of music-making throughout. On Friday evening the audience participated only timidly, but I have heard that children in particular enjoyed Saturday afternoon’s repeat concert. Despite the intention of the programming and levity of our compere, it seemed Geelong is not quite ready to make light of beloved classics, but certainly appreciates the quality of music-making in our city.
– Marie Goldsworthy
25 August 2017 – A Night in Vienna
With the programme title ‘A Night in Vienna’, those who stayed away thinking they would hear only Strauss waltzes missed a treat. The music was by Mozart and Beethoven, who both chose to make their homes in that most cultured of cities, as did other legendary musicians including Haydn and Schubert at different times.
After the strong opening chords, conductor Fabian Russell led the orchestra spiritedly through ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’ which, as President Wendy Galloway noted, is “a successful Overture to an unsuccessful ballet”, given its first performance in 1801 and marking Beethoven’s introduction to the Viennese stage. The 5-minute overture was written for a typical classical orchestra consisting of strings and timpani, with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, which roles the (mostly) Geelong-based musicians filled admirably.
This was followed by the 3 movements of Mozart’s masterpiece, the extraordinary Clarinet Concerto in A Major, featuring Frank Celata, lecturer at Sydney Conservatorium, on clarinet. His flawless playing, with particularly warm and colourful notes in the woody lower register, was well- supported by the strings and other woodwinds in subtlety and shading. The lyricism, and also the playfulness of Mozart’s writing were beautifully brought out with fine phrasing, and the delicate interplay between soloist and orchestra was a delight to experience.
Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, written between 1811 and 1812, was the most recent work of the three, and the audience in Costa Hall was reminded why it was that the composer regarded it as one of his best works. The vitality of this work was conveyed well from the outset, along with the beauty of the second movement, the rollicking scherzo, and the frenzied, relentless energy of the finale. It features lively dance-like rhythms, repeated figures, sudden changes of dynamics and tempi. The energy of this performance, and the role of the timpanist in particular, was entrancing.
Geelong is indeed fortunate to be able to have its own symphony orchestra producing music of such quality.
– Marie Goldsworthy
31 March 2017 – Northern Lights
Northern Lights display our accomplished orchestra.
This Northern Lights concert marked another strong step in the growth of Geelong’s orchestra.
It’s content – emotional, lyrical music chosen from composers born in Russia, the Czech Republic and Finland – was both challenging and reassuring. The challenge was to recreate the musical colours, moods and patterns describing northern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries with a recently formed group of mostly young 21st Century passionate Australian musicians.
Mussorgsky, Dvorak and Sibelius wrote their scores for performance by full-time professional musicians with time to ponder and practice distraction-free for weeks, sometimes months beforehand. In contrast, the Geelong Symphony had but a handful of rehearsals with its guest conductor Brett Kelly, some of them missing players as a result of our hectic comparative lifestyles. With this in mind, just completing the programme could be considered an achievement for any orchestra. But to do so with such accomplished ease and skill was impressive – and very reassuring. Because this Geelong orchestra, launched last year on a wave of warm anticipation, was displaying an ability to handle a difficult, complex programme outside the expected popular norm.
It thrilled with the opening piece – Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain – with its large, lyrical string section holding musical dialogues with its lusty augmented brass players, all neatly contrasted by lyrical harmonies from the woodwind and delicate gentle elaborations from the flutes. It then played with tactful, refined restraint to allow the evening’s accomplished guest soloist Michael Dahlenburg to display his passion and skills – he has a glorious abundance of both – in performing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, while the orchestra provided a neat and lovely supporting musical framework from those strings and predominant horns.
Following an interval came the compelling, repetitive patterns of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 in E minor. This piece had stirring anthems and challenging rhythms, textures and colours – all inside recurring patterns and all executed with aplomb and no mean skill by an orchestra that appeared to have grown in stature throughout the evening.
It was reassuring, too, to hear the appreciation from an audience of healthy numbers considering the concert’s comparative lack of big-name drawing power. It will be interesting to see the crowd at the Geelong Symphony’s next Costa Hall showing, in August, when our orchestra performs a couple of big names – Mozart and Beethoven – in a concert titled A Night In Vienna. This promises to be a concert of rare pride for Geelong – and an event not to be missed.
— Colin Mockett
28 October 2016 – From Russia with Love
Geelong wins from an evening of Russian passion.
This concert consisted entirely of the works of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It began with his Polonaise Act III Eugene Onegin; then moved on to the three movements of his Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 35, with soloist Rebecca Chan. Following a short interval, the orchestra played all four movements of his Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op. 64. To say the works were well received would be an understatement. The interval had been shortened by the long and sustained applause for soloist Rebecca’s three curtain calls, while the last note of the Finale movement brought on an instant burst of applause that lasted a full four minutes with calls of ‘Bravo’ and conductor Joannes Roose three times standing his orchestra to accept their acclaim. It was a heartwarming response, and quite amazing, considering that this orchestra held its first concert only in February this year. That applause, from a healthy 1000-strong Costa Hall audience, cemented the GSO’s position as a fully-emerged identity in the State’s classical music arena. It signaled that no longer need our city’s classical music fans take the highway to Melbourne, or await the MSO’s visits for we now have a high-standard orchestra of our own. So stand tall GSO founders Wendy Galloway, Jon Mamonski, Prof Jane den Hollander, maestro Roose and leader Ben Castle, for your work has given the people of Geelong a reason for pride in our city’s culture.
This was a concert chosen to build a following; the works were well-known and popular; the soloist glamorous. And the orchestra had been reshaped from that initial February group with extra strings to bring the warm, emotional lyrical sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Russia. The opening Eugene Onegin movement set the scene perfectly with its soaring, dramatic, lyrical themes executed with care and precision. But then came the stunning soloist Rebecca Chan, glamorous in a flame-red full-length dress against our orchestra’s colour-restrained black dresses and business suits. She sounded (literally) brilliant with a rendition of clarity, verve – and sympathy – in interpreting the moods and emotions of Tchaikovsky’s works. And she captured every heart in the Hall, too, with her eyes-closed, enraptured, almost-dancing-on-the-spot extension of the music into interpretive movement. She delivered all three, very different and technically difficult moods of the work in this compelling style, entirely from memory. A full thirty-five minutes, drawing the fore-mentioned sustained applause and preparing the audience for its full-symphony second half. This was delivered with all the care, precision, skill of the opening piece, but with an extra, almost tangible confidence that came as a result of that interval-encroaching applause and a growing positive audience vibe.
The concert’s programme listed GSO’s planned next three Costa Hall concerts in 2017. Each is of popular works and all are designed to build on the successes of this year. They’re listed in full on this site’s ‘Hot News’ page. I recommend that you book for these now, not only to gain the generous early-booking rates, but to take the opportunity to experience a first-rate orchestra and experience first-hand a newly-minted first-class asset to our region.
— Colin Mockett
26 February 2016 – The New World
The foyer anticipation was palpable – there were so many people wishing Geelong’s new orchestra well; wanting them to shine. Talk was of the beginning of a new era in our city’s cultural identity – a step towards our coming of age as a mature society. Inside the hall, that atmosphere intensified, fuelled, somewhat contradictorily, by a complete lack of hype or fanfare. The venue was almost full – more than 1,000 tickets sold. The house lights were not dimmed amid polite applause which rose in volume when conductor Joannes Roose joined them, smiled briefly at the audience, then raised his baton.
The first note of Nicolai’s Overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor was exquisite – pure, clear, singular and swelling to beautiful clarity. Inside the first stanza, indeed, the first minute, the feelings from the audience were almost audible, too, containing relief, awe, respect – and justification. This was truly an excellent orchestra, worthy of its venue and our city – and its quality upheld all the pre-concert expectations. So the applause was warm and long.
Then came a brief interlude while stage hands wrestled the venue’s Steinway grand piano to centre stage for the evening’s soloist, Kristian Chong. He entered, young, casual, smiling, sat at the piano, adjusted his surroundings – then produced a brilliant, flawless rendition of Rachmaninoff’s demanding piano concerto 2 in C minor Opus 18, neatly, competently and unobtrusively backed by the orchestra. This outstanding effort drew more sustained, even warmer applause.
Following the interval, the audience returned vitalised, having discussed their new City orchestra’s quality. They were treated to an accomplished version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony delivered in the highly competent manner. The work was an excellent choice; its contrasts, crescendos and familiar recurring themes formed an ideal showcase to introduce a new orchestra to its new audience. And it was appreciated, drawing an almost reverential standing ovation, with any doubters in the audience now fully won over.
— Colin Mockett