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Concert Reviews - 16 March 2019 - Sibelius and Elgar

Lucas De Jong - Published in Bohemian Rhapsody Club online Newsletter

REVIEW OF CONCERT BY THE ZELMAN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA – Sibelius and Elgar

I have been to several Zelman concerts as well as being a singer on stage in the chorus for the impressive Babi Yar Shostokovitch concert in Hamer Hall in September 2017. This concert, featuring beautiful works by Felix Mendelssohn, Jean Sibelius and Edward Elgar and featuring virtuoso violin soloist Ji Won Kim, was the second time I had witnessed Rick Prakhoff conducting Zelman, the first being the concert featuring Strauss’ "Four Last Songs" with soloist Miriam Gordon-Stewart. Prakhoff has been with Zelman for 12 months and seems very comfortable and confident now with his role.

The impressive strength of the brass section was evident from the opening C minor chords of the "Ruy Blas" overture by Mendelssohn, creating an intense atmosphere. I felt confident that we would be witness to an impressive concert. The string players kept their fingers lively as Prakhoff kept steady control and command throughout the demanding and pacey score. This work requires an excellent sense of timing and rhythm from the orchestra and these musicians are all up to the task as you can expect from the Zelman. The playing was tight and very exciting throughout with a big finish.

The impressive timing and atmospheric playing continued as the Sibelius violin concerto commenced. The opening bars with tremolos from the strings was chilling. Soloist Ji Won Kim has appeared twice before with Zelman, in 2013 and 2014, and has been playing this work since she performed it in 2009 for the ABC Young Performers Award, which she won. She considers this work her best piece to perform. Her ability to handle the complex and highly demanding technical challenges of this work showed from the very first bars. The sonorous low notes followed by leaps to high harmonics at speed were already gripping. Fully aware of the difficulties for the conductor,

Prakhoff remained totally attentive to the timing with attention focussed firmly on the soloist. The orchestra gave a sensitive delivery as the score demands, with many layers weaving their way in and out, as the voices of woodwind, strings and brass came and went, all punctuated by impressive playing by timpanist Kathryn Thomas. All section principals deserve comment with convincing solos from Rosia Pasteur (viola), Adrian Binkert (cello), Jo Spencer (horn), Gary Kirby (clarinet), Allison Pollard (bassoon), Carol Galea (flute), and Yi-Ling Ng (oboe). All of this was kept together under the watchful eye of orchestral concertmaster Susan Pierotti. As the first movement unfolded the technical skill and wizardry displayed by Kim cast its spell on the audience. The extended cadenza in the development section, written by Sibelius, is known for its extraordinary technical demands, such as playing two melodies at once and extremely difficult bowing as well as having a lighting ability on the fingerboard. All this was handled extremely impressively by Kim, playing at speed and with great command. Her expressive line and ability get the violin speaking to us in almost desperation at times was extraordinary.

In the second movement, which opens with melodies in the very securely played clarinets, oboes and flutes, and very balanced horn section, Kim delivered a sonorous melody in the low register while the cellos and basses played a gentle pizzicato. Following this the trombone droned its pedal point as the orchestra built to a tense crescendo. The temperature rose as the soloist played a jerky melody over sustained low strings. As the atmosphere changed the tempo changes were handled really tastefully by Prakhoff. The final moments of tremolo in the orchestra and the final high harmonic from Kim were almost untouchable and had me holding my breath. Then it was time for the third movement, with which I was most familiar and is known amongst violinists for its formidable and difficult technical demands. Kim’s fingers once again passed along the strings like lightning keeping well to the syncopation while the orchestra kept accurate tempo. This duality between orchestra and soloist could be seen as indicative of Sibelius’ own struggle to be a violin virtuoso himself. The brilliant display of violin gymnastics including double stopping, rapid string-crossing and extended melody on harmonics was spooky and most surprising, all executed by Kim with panache. It had me on the edge of my seat. Prakhoff perfectly executed a swift ending which came with a cheer from the audience who had been held mesmerised by the impressive display from both soloist and orchestra.

After interval, where people were seen milling around the glowing presence of Ji Won Kim holding both her violin and her 11-month-old baby, it was time for the Enigma variations by Edward Elgar. The opening (C.A.E.) is gentle and beautiful, introducing a warm and welcoming theme. This and the second variation (H.D.S.P.) showed how accomplished the musicians are in all sections of the Zelman, but notably at this point the woodwind section. Things quicken and become most demanding in the third variation (R.B.T.), where the rhythms were tight and clean. The fourth variation (W.M.B.) was suitably boisterous and showed off the oboes well. Variation five (R.P.A.) highlighted the sonorous and leisurely violas. Variation six (Ysobel) showed off the viola soloist abilities of Rosia Pasteur once again.

Variation seven (Troyte) showed once again the abilities of timpanist Kathryn Thomas and the confidence of the tuba and trombone players in another boisterous mood. Number eight (W.N.) displayed wonderful solos from oboe, flute, piccolo and viola alongside sonorous strings. Next came the glorious "Nimrod" which is variation nine. Slowly this rose like the sun in a long crescendo to a touching oboe solo, after which the strings transported me, leading to a moving brass climax. There is so much heart and soul in the string melody of this movement that it is little wonder it has become so famous and everybody’s favourite. In variation ten (Intermezzo: Dorabella) the orchestral woodwinds danced with delight while the viola gave a beautiful solo. Variation eleven (G.R.S.) goes at a lightning pace and is over in just 1 minute. This was tight with great timing and accurate playing from all sections.

The luscious variation twelve (B.G.N.) features a beautiful cello solo followed by the whole cello section. This was played with wonderful sensitivity. It was followed without pause into variation thirteen (Romanza ***), featuring a clarinet solo invoking a mysterious atmosphere. The orchestra livened up for the broader and grand music of variation fourteen (E.D.U.) the finale, bringing together many of the themes of the work and providing a grand climax with a strong concussion.

In the final applause Prakhoff singled out the soloists and the sections for their well deserved applause. Another triumph for the Zelman.

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