Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Mid-Season Gala

A full foyer of seasoned subscribers attending alongside a plethora of young people and families was a delight to see at Saturday’s Mid-Season Gala presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Deborah Cheetham’s Long Time Living Here has become an important mainstay of MSO performances. On this occasion, cellist Miranda Brockman’s spoken Acknowledgment of Country was accompanied in fervent and sincere fashion by concertmaster Sophie Rowell and string principals Matthew Tomkins, Christopher Moore and David Berlin.

With Sydney-based Anne Boyd welcomed by chief conductor Jaime Martín, this performance of her At the Rising of the Sun was introduced by the composer and dedicated to the memory of noted violinist and teacher of several MSO musicians, Alice Waten. Commissioned by the Kuring-gai Symphony Orchestra for the centenary of Australia’s Federation, it was written in homage to Boyd’s teacher, Australian compositional giant, Peter Sculthorpe, whose influence abounds.

As noted in the program, philosophically the music is based upon the intersection of Christian Love with Buddhist silence, a concept that lies at the heart of Boyd’s creative activity. The strength of the piece lies in its orchestration and overarching connection of ideas. A resplendent brass fanfare serves as an introduction, giving way to translucent string textures and an outstanding display of just how many different timbres can be used to colour a single pitch. Calm and clear, Martín demonstrated that not a single gesture is to be wasted in communicating a well-defined, clear texture. Boyd sat on stage to observe and was applauded warmly at its conclusion.

Greeted enthusiastically by the Hamer Hall audience, this concert heralded the much-anticipated Melbourne debut of popular cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Several broken bow hairs summarised his commitment to Shostakovich’s second concerto as the 23-year-old pushed his instrument to the very brink in exciting fashion.

Program information for this concert noted the concerto’s genesis as one of the several dedicated to and written for the cello’s most imposing figure, Mstislav Rostropovich. Playing with the music close-by as an aide-mémoire seemed judicious in this dense, complicated score (especially after some jet-lagged media appearances earlier in the week), although Kanneh-Mason didn’t seem to refer to the printed part at all.

Assured in even the most technical passages, Kanneh-Mason relished long line and tenacious pizzicato chords in violent outbursts. This performance was tight, and visible moments of interaction between conductor and soloist were welcome.

If lacking the bite, attack and gravitas of the work’s dedicatee, Kanneh-Mason makes up for it with soul, swagger and an engaging yet enigmatic personality. Nevertheless, one wonders if he is ultimately more suited to Schumann or Saint-Saëns by nature.

As a bonus, a cello quintet arrangement based on Komm, süßer Tod provided the unlikely Bach encore one chooses when not playing from the celebrated solo suites and proved almost more captivating than the concerto performance itself.

In the second half of this concert, the “brave new world” of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 afforded to us by Jaime Martín was full of sweeping gestures and brandished fists. Instantly engaging from its first dramatic motif, Martín conducted from memory and elicited committed and detailed playing full of surprise and nuance.

Heroic efforts by hornist Saul Lewis and his section along with well-judged and characterful contributions from Robert Cossom on triangle enhanced a lusciousness of string playing and highly becoming lower brass presence throughout. It would be remiss not to mention the cor anglais solo of Michael Pisani, which was deftly phrased and imbued with a comfortable sense of forward momentum in a second movement that can easily suffer from stasis.

The fine characteristics of this performance lifted Dvořák 9 beyond the realm of “pops” repertoire. Taking the final audience response at face value, it appears that MSO programming and marketing departments are well in-sync with the expectations of much of its subscriber and supporter base, both of which are vital for organisational longevity.

Overall, surtitles heralding the commencement of each piece seem largely redundant, particularly when they cause delay to the conductor’s intentions to start after interval, although access to the program is largely at the perils of Arts Centre WiFi. Roving photographers and camera operators were largely unobtrusive, and it was good to see this well-attended performance streamed as part the first-rate MSO.LIVE digital series.

If nothing else, this gala showed once again just how much Melbourne loves its orchestra, and just how visibly appreciative the musicians of the MSO are of their adoring public.

Photo credit: Laura Manariti.


Nicholas Dinopoulos reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Mid-Season Gala, performed at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall on July 30, 2022.

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