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Concert Reviews - 24 March 2018 - French Connections

Sylvester Kroyherr - Published in Bohemian Rhapsody Club online Newsletter


Given at: Eldon Hogan Performing Arts Centre, XAVIER COLLEGE, Barkers Road, Kew on 24/3/2018.
Conductor: Rick Prakhoff
Soloist: Caroline Almonte (Piano).

​The programme sparked off with great energy and intensity as Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite raised the concert curtain. (With four parts to the incidental music lasting about 20 minutes, the piece explores the symbolic music of Debussy’s opera of the same name.) Appropriately, the orchestra delivered smooth richness in the strings with good light and shade, along with a well controlled gentle ending in the first part. The second short section also displayed a sensitive interplay between the oboe, horn and strings. Leading to the Sicilienne, the serene harp and flute passages were calmly soothed by the muted violins. Though emotionally sad, the last section surged with power to give a powerful finish, guided with great conviction by the conductor.

A short informative and witty preamble followed in which Rick acknowledged the 100th year of the passing of Debussy.

Ravel’s short five minute arrangement of Debussy’s Sarabande was the second offering. The most noticeable features were a good handling of modal harmonies and mood changes along with some impressive crescendos. And now, the orchestra was primed for the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel.

With an explosive and fiery start, Caroline was immediately accepted as she tackled the profusely challenging passages that were full of well handled drama and flair. The jazz inspired sections flowed with well rounded pace and dexterity weaving into an inspired cadenza and finishing dramatically. In contrast, the beautifully delivered gentle and sensitive solo start to the second movement showed Caroline’s prowess. The well controlled and powerful build-up was complimented by the orchestra that moved into expressive subtlety with a superb trill finish by Caroline. Having to turn her own pages must have been challenging but did not detract from her classy performance. In the finale, the energetic and discordant start flowed into more delicate passages that showed immaculate timing by the soloist incorporating good syncopation. With a crisp ending, the excited audience was cheering, whistling and ecstatic. What a tremendous performance by all!!!

The interval followed.

The second last offering included Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun). With a charming flute solo by Carol Galea to begin the prelude and enhanced by colourful runs by the harp (Vanessa Sundstrup), the horns added to produce a well balanced mix of moods. The direction from Rick was also commanding and engaging as a return to the haunting melodies led by the flute’s purity, captured a sense of gentle serenity with a sweet ending.

Stravinsky’s Ballet Suite for Orchestra from The Firebird (1945 version) was the finale. A challenging composition lasting about 25 minutes, the introduction by the double bases was expressive and well coordinated to be followed by a tuneful interplay between the flute, piano and harp. The audience was lapping up the moving contrasts and interesting modulations. Nice work from the French horns also! In essence what we heard was a well executed interplay of musical flavours. Interestingly, the Firebird’s lullaby for bassoon, oboe and strings was very delicate and with an exciting dramatic brassy finale, the auditorium was rapturous and upstanding! Yes, the orchestra, with the connected and intense leadership of Rick Prakhoff pulled off the delivery of a powerful and complex piece, much to the satisfaction of an appreciative large audience.

​Congratulations to Rick Prakhoff, Caroline Almonte and the Zelman Symphony Orchestra, as we look forward to future events in 2018. A most enjoyable, exciting and enriching concert – well done everyone, including all the volunteers!

SYLVESTER KROYHERR (Bohemian Rhapsody Club) 27 March 2018

Barbara Booth - ArtsHub

French Connections! The tempting title would have been enough to lure Melbourne’s Francophiles to Xavier College’s Performing Arts Centre last Saturday night but the program made a full house a certainty. It was a salon of composers who knew and admired Claude Debussy, delivering their most renowned works to honour the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death. Contemporaries were Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, and Russian, Igor Stravinsky, who became a lifelong friend of Debussy, following the première of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ in Paris in 1910.

The late 19th century brought change in France to music perspectives and freedom of expression, especially in relation to jazz and opera, theatre and ballet were fostered under the influence of the great impressario, Sergei Diaghilev.

Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande was originally designed as ‘incidental’ music for a play by Maurice Maeterlinck in London, and had twenty-five numbers. As a Suite it was eventually reduced to four, which gave the violins the opportunity to gently introduce the forest scene in perfect harmony with the harp. It was a joy to hear this classic instrument, played by Vanessa Sundstrup, given the opportunity to accompany several of the works in the program, particularly this one with solo flute played by Carol Galea.

Debussy and Ravel both played piano well but Debussy passed his solo piano piece, Sarabande, to Ravel to orchestrate and it brought forth a rich sound from the four double basses and large woodwind section. Ravel later developed such a difficult composition in his Piano Concerto in G Major that he had to admit defeat and pass the playing of it to others. In 1928 he had toured the United States of America and, undoubtedly, met with jazz greats of that era like George Gershwin. Gershwin’s lifelong ambition was to have his Rhapsody in Blue accepted as classical music, not unlike Ravel’s desire to incorporate jazz into his classic Piano Concerto played now by Caroline Almonte, a pianist celebrated in Australia and abroad. Arriving on stage in a stunning black and red dress that swirled gracefully around her feet, this amazing artiste took instant control of the piano with the lightest of touch. Fingers trilled from one end of the keyboard to the other, crossing hands, morphing seamlessly with flute and harp. The gentle melody with the left hand rose to dazzling crescendoes which brought trumpeters to their feet and gave Kathryn Thomas a chance to shine on percussion with Russell Fane on timpani. It was a breathtakingly passionate performance to which even Ravel would have bowed.

I daresay Almonte had her reasons for not wanting a page-turner but, even at risk of being in the path of an arm flourish, surely one would have been helpful!

The two final pieces, firstly Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune, followed by Stravinsky’s Ballet Suite for Orchestra from The Firebird (1945 version), clearly showed the creativity and sensitivity of the two composers. For anyone who had viewed either work as ballets, the vision and sound remain as sensual and exciting as they must have been so long ago with Prelude being the gentler of the two as harp and flute painted a picturesque scene brought to life by buzzing cellos and violin plucking.

It was 16 years before Stravinsky premiered the first two suites of The Firebird and 26 more years until the 1945 version. As with his other works, it has a story line that gives vent to solo artists, clarinet, oboes, basoons and French horns giving The Firebird a far more spirited interpretation than the ‘Faun’ but one can still hear hints of the half-man, half-goat, in deference to Debussy.

The Zelman Symphony Orchestra has done it again and more than lived up to its reputation as a premier orchestra. Hats off to the new 2018 Artistic Director and Conductor, Rick Prakhoff, for taking time to give the audience a brief background to the comprehensive program to follow which had seemed a little like overkill at first sight. However it turned out to be exactly the opposite and the audience departed exhilarated, in no small part due to the vitality and enthusiasm of Prakhoff which resonated throughout the orchestra.

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