This was a jaw dropping, absolutely breath taking concert by the Willoughby Symphony. The program, under the umbrella title of TRIUMPH, consisted of two works, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with a most astonishing and impressive performance by special guest artist Kristian Chong and after interval Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
The Orchestra was in marvellous form with a rich, extremely balanced, golden tone as energetically, enthusiastically and precisely led by Dr Nicholas Milton. There was also another special reason to celebrate as it is John Cran, the renowned bassoonist’s 90th birthday this week.
First we heard a dazzling, captivating, fiery and tumultuous performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 ( readers might remember it from the movie Shine) with spellbinding soloist Kristian Chong who gave a stunning performance aristocratically sculpted. It is an iconic, mammoth work often regarded as the pinnacle of Romantic pianism. Chong and the orchestra treated it with due reverence.
Rachmaninov’s work consists of three large movements. The opening melody has relatively little orchestral accompaniment. (It is perhaps reminiscent of some chants of the Russian Orthodox Church.) There are also hints throughout the work of the composer’s Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini and perhaps Stravinsky influences.
The well-known opening melody was played by Chong with a languid legato, conveying outward confidence blended with a dark undertone of anticipation. In the first movement Chong’s playing of the cadenza was wild and hair-raising while the second movement was more rhapsodic and melancholic .Chong’s playing in the lyrical or melodic sections was enchanting and luminous contrasting with his fiery passionate volcanic eruptions at other times.
Milton was highly attentive to Chong’s playing and the delicate shaping around it and in the gradual builds toward climaxes he revealed himself as a master of phrasing, pacing and layering sounds. In the second movement there were sharp spiky sections, an intriguing use of pizzicato, haunting woodwind and at various points throughout the work there were swirling, turbulent segments. Sparks flew. There was tumultuous prolonged applause and screams of ‘Bravo’ for Chong.
After interval we heard a passionate, turbulent rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony ( 1877/1878) ‘a haunting journey of tragic reality, passing dreams, visions of happiness, from the deepest trenches of human despair to the glorious triumph of the human spirit.
The work is permeated with unprecedented indications of the composer’s personal emotions, the intensity of which escalate gradually through each movement.It reflects his turbulent personal life at the time and is dedicated to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck .It opened with emphatic brass ( quite Swan Lake -ish) – the ‘fate’ leitmotif. followed by anxious strings and swooping woodwind.
The second movement opened with a poignant heart twisting oboe solo with the strings quietly murmuring underneath. Sometimes the orchestra in this movement was slow and stately like a flowing river, at other points it was anxious and pulsating , sometimes dance like .
Crash! The third movement featured scurrying strings, who then later sounded quite melancholy and then were strident, the horns, and the entire orchestra going full throttle tempestuously. There were hints of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture too and an interesting use of surging pizzicato.
The final movement, incorporating a famous Russian folk song, was fast, joyous and surged towards the agitated, breathless conclusion.
There was thunderous applause and numerous curtain calls. A TRIUMPH indeed.
Running time 2 hours including interval
Willoughby Symphony in Triumph played the Concourse on the 28th and 29th October 2017