With the ensemble name like La Fraternità di soloisti, and a chamber group consisting of strings, my expectations were set to expect a program of Vivaldi and Corelli. And with a concert name like winter chills, could we be hearing anything but at least one of the Four Seasons?
Of course that would be far too obvious a program for one of Melbourne's newest ensembles of professional musicians ably conducted by the imposing Gyula (pronounced Jule) Cseszkó. I was delighted to discover a wonderfully varied program, featuring Arvo Pärt, Handel, Ernst Bloch and Dvorák.
We were guided through the program by a musicologist who gave the background to all the pieces of the concert. I very much appreciate this approach, especially for a lesser known program. It adds interest and provides a lilting rhythm to a concert. In this case the speeches were given quite earnestly, but the gentle humour was there for those who listened out for it.
The Pärt began the concert in a meditative, quasi-religious mood which suited the slightly gothic setting of the Auburn Uniting church. Its a surprisingly squat but large church, allowing the audience to surround the musicians; giving an "in-the-round" feel to the performance. The sonorous strings rising and falling like gentle waves in a sheltered bay, allowed the audience to shed outside cares and become present for the concert. If you needed anymore help to transport you to another era, you could have read the olde world version of the ten commandments emblazoned on the church columns. I realised there were many things of my neighbour's that I wasn't allowed to covet.
In the background to the group of about fifteen string players was the massive church organ, which was majestically brought into play for the Handel Organ concerto in B flat. Geoff Urquart strode confidently to his seat at the keyboard, and we could see the twinkle in his eye through the mirror he used to observe the conductor. The Handel concerto galloped along jauntily, and held together tightly. This was no sombre church music, but a joyous expression of the organ, beautifully accompanied by full throated strings, relishing the runs and turns.
My favourite piece for the concert was the Ernst Bloch - from "Jewish Life". Soloist Imogen Manins emerged from the orchestral group to sit next to the conductor. The opening of the piece began with weeping yearning cello, with the rich notes reverberating through the massive church pile, ably supported by the lower strings . I enjoyed the space given to the notes, the beautiful phrasing, the lingering in pain and sorrow. Just when the ache could be born no more, we were into the second movement, which was more beautiful, more lyrical; a pure tune of hope. It felt like being renewed in a bubbling fresh spring surrounded by soft grass. The third movement was an expression of love, underpinned by the interplay between solo cello and soli viola.
The encore evoked the spirit of Jaqueline du pré, and surprisingly the orchestra cello joined in towards the end. Beautiful.
After the interval, The "Fraternity of soloists" played the Dvorak Serenade for strings. Although I don't know the piece very well, I felt the early tempos were a little sombre for this piece. I found myself willing it along. Maybe I was eyeing off the tea and coffee, maybe I was looking for a bit more interest in the music. The musicologist described the piece as "joyful" and maybe that raised my expectations. The orchestra came through with the joy for the scherzo movement and the final Allegro vivace.
This is an orchestra in its president's own words, "finding its feet", and I very much appreciated the interesting programme, the fine playing and the added context provided by the musicologist. They are also attempting to give the audience a chance to connect with the experience by providing a social time afterwards with ample refreshments and access to the musicians. This was quite successful with a substantial part of the audience staying back to take up the offer, in the afterglow of a lovely concert.