Review: Slavonic Splendour on 25th June 2022

by Billie Saint Rang

Lifting restrictions at large gatherings seems to bring back some sense of order in our lives, so audiences are again showing their support for the return of theatre and music   The Barrier Reef Orchestra has always had a solid following so there were few vacant seats in the JCU Sir George Kneipp Theatre for the BRO June concert. This location has excellent acoustic quality so no matter where they sat the audience enjoyed a great night of music.

The orchestra has given highly energetic performances of both classical and popular repertoire at a range of venues over more than two decades.  Its 50 plus members have performed under batons of established and highly regarded national and international conductors as well as our outstanding local conductor Andrew Ryder.   Internationally acknowledged conductor Ted Kuchar has a long association with the orchestra and recognises its scope and depth of talent. Under his baton the June concert’s program of works by Slavic composers highlighted that talent as well as a willingness to take on the unfamiliar and their support for guest soloists.

Dvorak is a winning way to open a concert. Although he is best known for his 9th Symphony (The New World), Op107, The Water Goblin is just as interesting. Called a symphonic poem, it is based on a rather gruesome folk tale, a bit more dramatic than the 9th, but a joy to take in. Its single continuous phrase, played at a variety of tempos, was rich in tone and orchestral colour, providing a real treat for those of us who like bold brass and percussion. Only a skilled conductor like Ted Kuchar could foster such a masterly orchestration.

Early concert repertoire for harp includes well known Mozart pieces for flute and harp but solo pieces and concertos for the instrument are unusual. Local harpist Leah Xiang Li gave a beautiful and confident performance of one movement from the Reinecke Harp Concerto.  The orchestral accompaniment helped showcase the intrigue and artistry of this dazzling solo contribution to the night.

Radiantly appealing, Ukrainian contralto Lyubov Dika gave a dramatic interpretation of Erda’s Warning from Das Rheingold. (If you’ve not had the stamina to sit through all or any of The Ring dramas, here’s a cut down version of this setting: Erda, The Earth Mother (She Who Must Be Obeyed) warns the Ruler of the Gods that he needs to pull up his socks regarding his choice of acquaintances if he wants to avoid a quick demise.)

Best not look at the misleading song title (I Know That I Have Sinned) when there is an upbeat refrain gathering pace and  the audience is in toe tapping  mode.   Wagner to folk song, Lyubov engaged the audience with her vocal artistry and grace.  And, as before, the orchestra gave serious brass support.

Despite some negative reaction by early critics, Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony has become loved (especially by  advertising ) and seen by many as a reflection of  the composer’s  expression of optimism after a bleak period in his life. This work could be a challenge for any orchestra but Kuchar knows this music well and he managed to extract a sweeping and glorious sound of a fully professional calibre  from this orchestra. The magic of the woodwind introduction in the first movement and the enthusiastic waltz of the 3rd were exhilarating, but it was the triumphant 4th with an ending resembling a Cossack dance that had the audience out of their chairs. Loved it! Loved it!  Nonetheless, it was the soaring and emotionally engaging experience of hearing their delivery of the second movement that overcame any loathsome feeling we might have for it.

So how did they top that with an encore?  With Lyubov leading the audience into a Ukrainian folksong similar to the Russian favourite, Kalynka.….who knows what it means but who cares when it’s the tune we know so  well…… so some in-time hand clapping was on. Even the serious contralto knows how to pour on the fun for her audience.

The orchestra shows they share the joy of performing with guest soloists and that joy is diffused to the audience. The calm that Leah’s harp music settled upon us….the thrilling voice, glamour and zest Lyubov brought to the night.

But the entire program was clearly thought through in a way typical of Kuchar. His concert stage experience lends itself to knowing what an audience wants and what an orchestra can do. That a conductor of his renown has chosen to promote a community orchestra is seldom seen but his interest in the Barrier Reef Orchestra never wanes.  He has watched over BRO since its early days.

 Yes, this  concert was further confirmation that the orchestra continues to grow, not just in strength of performance but also in a willingness to dive right into the unfamiliar.    No matter what musical category or setting, BRO can Bring it Off.