Probably the last thing that Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) wanted or needed right now was for their star violinist and 2017 artist-in-residence, Maxim Vengerov, to hand in a sick-note.
Although not unwell himself, an illness in the family rendered Vengerov unable to attend QSO's gala 70th anniversary season finale on 18 November and Hungarian Violinist Barnabas Kelemen was thus drafted in as a last-minute replacement to fill the master's shoes.
The fact of a replacement was bravely signalled by QSO prior to the event, but nonetheless, there was an air of nervous anticipation in the QPAC Concert Hall.
But from the very moment he strode on to the stage, Kelemen more than ably demonstrated that he could step up to the plate in terms of style and marketable star quality. The audience started to relax, but style wasn't all that they came for of course. What about the playing? Appearing on stage as a replacement for Maxim Vengerov is one thing, being asked to play the Brahms Violin Concerto on that same stage quite another. It has been suggested that the difficulty of the piece is related to the fact that Brahms was a pianist by training and didn't quite understand what he was asking a solo violinist to do. Regardless of the veracity of this rumour, there is no doubt that it's a hard piece to play. The pressure was therefore most decidedly "on".
Proving himself more than equal to the challenge, Kelemen responded with virtuosic alacrity, producing a tremendous performance, full of flair, verve and loaded with all the expression demanded by the piece. The sections for solo violin in particular, challenging complex runs with double stops and intricate rhythmic variations, were particularly well executed. The whole thing though was beautifully played, and the QSO, under a different sort of pressure themselves, responded in kind, producing the sort of performance we've not seen since, well, the last Vengerov concert! To cap off his unexpected triumph and to prove that the Brahms was no fluke, Kelemen responded with not one, but two, encores in the form of Bartok and J S Bach, both of which continued the frenetic pace and technical demands inherent in the main piece.
To complete his bid to become Queensland's new favorite violinist, Kelemen undertook a meet and autograph session in the concert hall foyer during the interval, generously taking the time to speak with his new fans, sign autographs, and pose for pictures. I think his takeover is complete! He returns to Queesland in March 2018 to perform again with the QSO and his unscheduled but delightful early appearance here should surely guarantee a full house then.
With reports of high staff turnover and rumours of a toxic work environment circulating in the mediarecently, the second half of the evening's concert was an opportunity for the musicians, and in particular music director Alondra de la Parra, to calm some troubled waters in the manner that they know best, that is to say, through their music.
De la Parra, pointedly referencing her pleasure at being back in Brisbane "amongst her friends", indicating the orchestra, and providing an interesting and far more verbose than usual preamble to both the pieces in the second half of the programme, was, one felt, obliquely responding to criticisms that have been levelled. There was only one slightly jarring moment in all of this, when the violinists were caught napping when they were supposed to be illustrating a musical point, and there was perhaps a frisson of exasperation that accompanied the humorous response.
Henri Dutilleux's 'Métaboles' is a curious piece that invokes and involves the whole of the orchestral repertoire in a series of musical "ideas" that undergo successive transformations as they progress through different sections of the orchestra. It was both interesting and enjoyable, and of particular fascination were some of the crossovers between sections where the sounds coming from two completely different types of instrument were made to sound uncannily alike.
The concluding piece was Ravel's mesmerizing ballet suites 'Daphnis et Chloé'. One of the most eloquent musical soundscapes in existence, with vivid images being conjured in the mind of the listener, it is no wonder that it is performed more often as a concert piece than as a staged ballet: one hardly needs dancers to see what is going on. The piece is remarkable too for its use of the human voice as an instrument, with the Australian Voices contributing, on this occasion, their voices per se rather than singing to the orchestration.
Both of these pieces were handled with not only a high degree of mastery, but also with the high passion and emotion that the Ravel, in particular, demands. Whether there is any substance or not to the recent rumours, the truth of the matter is that the QSO has never played better than it has in 2017, and this performance has without a doubt capped off a triumphant 70th Anniversary year for the orchestra. We look forward to 2018!
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.77
Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
'Daphnis et Chloé'