Review: Evening Serenade on 28th October 2017

by Billie Saint Rang

BRO’s last performance for 2017, Evening Serenade, was another outstanding concert achievement, rounding off the already successful orchestral season. Our largest audience to date was presented with an evening of items familiar to listeners of the classical hit parade, some operatic arias, and a performance by Elena Kats-Chernin of her new work, written for, and played by Sally Walker, an Australian flautist with a world-class reputation. Of equal reputation was our conductor, Mark Shiell, making his fourth and final outing with the Barrier Reef Orchestra.

The orchestra opened the concert with the much-loved Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky; a haunting piece of music which had probably its greatest exposure through the Walt Disney animated film Fantasia.  The woodwinds did great justice to the opening of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess and the whole orchestra superbly captured its haunting subtlety and expressive melodies that have made the work hugely popular.

Soprano Cassandra Wright, winner of the Australian Concerto and Vocal Competition, and no stranger to the North, held her audience mesmerized with her delivery of arias from Carmen (Bizet) and Manon (Massenet). She sang long phrases with elegance and sustained top notes with ease.

Danzón No.2 by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez featured solos for clarinet, oboe, piano, violin, trumpet, and piccolo. Each did their part with flair, benefiting one of the most frequently performed, Mexican contemporary classical music compositions. Very much a dance, with origins in Cuban music, this piece is another highlight of the diverse repertoire of the BRO.

The orchestra ushered in the second part of the concert with Aram Khachaturian’s popular work, Sabre Dance. Under Mark Shiell’s baton, this fiery and energetic dance was performed in a style to please any enthusiast of the work. And what a performance it was: dashing and exciting, adding an element of sheer adrenaline to the evening. (Sabre Dance has also been used by figure skaters from several countries in their performances.  Devotees of the piece might watch for it at the Winter Olympics.)

 Cassandra Wright’s return to the stage drew large applause.  Her impressive performance of arias from Puccini’s La Boheme and Bizet’s The Pearlfishers, found an enthusiastically responsive audience. Her delivery displayed confidence and emotions sensitive to the narratives. Lack of familiarity with the opera’s language does not hinder the message when songs are delivered with such intensity and warmth.

Greig’s The Peer Gynt Suite, although written only as incidental music to a Henrick Ibsen play, has become the composer’s most notable work.  Grieg’s music is very descriptive and many a TV advertisement (or telephone on-hold service) have used the opening movement to create the musical mood. However, it still has maintained a high place on the swoon scale.  We enjoy it to the full when given a skillful presentation suggesting images of morning sparkle. Mark Shiell and the orchestra awakened that sparkle.

The highlight of the program was the performance of the concerto Night and Now, by its composer Elena Kats-Chernin, with flautist Sally Walker for whom it was composed. Elena, whose star has continued to rise since she composed the music for the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games, now has her music for ballet and the concert stage acclaimed and performed all over the world. Her friend, Sally Walker, possesses the musical mastery as a flautist that has allowed her to perform with some of Europe’s most accomplished orchestras.  Mark Shiell was no stranger to this composition. He had conducted it on several occasions in Melbourne.

The concerto is in three movements which are reflections of influences in Elena’s life in Russia. The first is based on two Russian fairy tales, the second, on her experiences of the lack or abundance of food, and the third of a Tarantella dance. Night and Now was both pleasing to the ear and well suited to such a masterful performer as Sally Walker.  Having artists of this calibre play with BRO is a coup and a sign of the of the orchestra’s growing reputation. 

This was a marvellous concert of broad appeal with accomplished performances by the orchestra and the guest soloists.  If you didn’t go to this concert, I can strongly recommend you go to the first in the Barrier Reef Orchestra’s season in March at Riverway.   There are some sensational surprises in the pipeline for 2018.