Queensland Symphony Orchestra continues to astonish and delight with its 70th anniversary celebrations, and Saturday night’s (22 April) concert at QPAC featured not just one, but two remarkable firsts – the Australian premiere of Philip Glass’s 'Symphony No.11', and the Australian debut of astonishingly gifted young Russian pianist, Alexander Malofeev.
QSO Music Director par excellence Alondra de la Parra acted as standard bearer for this extravaganza, introducing and conducting both works. Alondra was in dazzling form and good humour as she strode onto the stage in a striking green tunic over black slacks and trademark sparkling shoes.
'Symphony No.11' was co-commissioned by Bruckner Orchester Linz, Istanbul Music Festival, and Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The piece was premiered in New York’s Carnegie Hall on 31 January 2017, the occasion of Glass’s 80th birthday, but the QSO performances (Friday 21 and Saturday 22 April) were only the second and third times that the piece has been publicly played.
Glass is easily one of the most listenable and accessible of living composers, and 'Symphony No.11' is close in character to symphonies 8 and 9, and contains much signature Glass material. Repetitive, see-sawing notes are developed over time and overlain with sweepingly lyrical and occasionally vigorously stirring passages; the music rarely strays from harmony, and any forays outside the range are quickly resolved.
Perhaps less typical of Glass’s work was the sheer depth of sound, which towards the end of the third movement reached such a towering accumulation that it was hard to appreciate where all the sound was coming from. The use of a purely percussive opening to the third movement, with no less than five percussionists on stage, and the prominence of the tuba (complete with enormous mute for some sections) also represented new directions.
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Despite some slight hesitation in the early parts of the first movement, the orchestra brought out the joy and beauty of the piece, with the violins and horns imparting rhapsodic lyricism to many key moments. The rapturous cacophony at the end of the first movement, and the final crescendo at the end of the third, were nothing short of magnificent. The whole was co-ordinated masterfully by Alondra de la Parra’s elegant and emphatic gestures.
From a piece heard by hardly anyone on the planet we moved to one of the world’s favourite pieces of music. Although pushed in to second place by Vaughan Williams’s 'The Lark Ascending' for the past four years, Rachmaninov’s 'Piano Concerto No.2' has regularly topped UK radio station Classic FM’s Hall of Fame, which is the largest poll of classical music listeners in the world. Many of its melodic themes are instantly recognisable, having made their way into popular culture, notably through its use in Eric Carmen’s 1975 ballad 'All By Myself', and its use as the sound track for David Lean’s film 'Brief Encounter'.
Rachmaninov’s 'Piano Concerto No. 2' was premiered in 1901, 100 years before Alexander Malofeev was born! His arrival on stage caused a ripple of surprise; his cherubic good looks and a slight frame make him seem younger than his 16 years, and to see him confidently seated at a concert grand that dwarfed him was nothing short of astonishing. However, this paled into insignificance when he began to play, and instantly rendered all present utterly spellbound with the powerful opening bars.
His playing was superb throughout, and although there was a tendency towards the mechanical in parts of the first movement, this soon gave way to a mastery of the emotional depth and range of the work, demonstrating maturity way beyond his years.
It was no surprise that the audience rose almost as one to offer a heartfelt standing ovation, to which he responded with a brilliant encore, rounding off the whole performance with an intricate piece by Prokofiev.
Philip Glass – 'Symphony No.11' (AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE)
Sergei Rachmaninov – 'Piano Concerto No.2' in C minor, Op.18
Encore: 'Sergei Prokofiev' – Toccata, Op.11