Review: Heavenly (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

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Conductor Daniel Blendulf (L) and 2019 Artist in Residence Paul Lewis (R) take a bow with Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra kickstarted their 2019 season on February 16 with an evening of otherworldly music from Mozart and Mahler.

In place of the pre-concert talk that occurs before most QSO Maestro concerts, Timothy Matthies hosted an in-conversation with Brisbane-based guest soprano Morgan England-Jones, who performed the solo role in Mahler’s fourth symphony later in the evening.

England-Jones was warm and articulate as she spoke about her personal history with singing, and finding her voice as a soprano after initially training as a mezzo soprano. She and Matthies spoke about the rehearsal process and time-frames, as well as about the musical works themselves. “He writes so much into the music that there is a wealth of information to draw on,” Morgan said of Mahler, adding that Heavenly was the first time she had performed any of his works. She explained that in preparing for this performance she had listened to a lot of different recordings of the symphony, researching and getting to know Mahler as well as she could before commencing rehearsals with the conductor and orchestra. She also commented that Daniel Blendulf had been a very responsive conductor to work with, and described the experience of singing with an orchestra as “like being buoyed up by an ocean – there’s a such a wave of sound beneath you, it lifts you up…it’s like nothing else.”

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Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

The concert began with Mozart’s final piano concerto, No.27, first performed early in 1791, the year of his death, featuring QSO’s 2019 Artist in Residence, pianist Paul Lewis, as soloist. With Alondra de la Parra currently replacing the incapacitated Franz Welser-Möst in conducting a new production of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the prestigious Staatsoper Berlin, Scandinavian conductor Daniel Blendulf took to the podium for Heavenly in her place.

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Daniel Blendulf conducts Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

 

Mozart’s piano concerto was light, bright, and cheerful and it brought an involuntary smile to my face. The unity of the instruments, the balance of darkness and light in Lewis’ performance, and the increasing complexity of themes as they evolved and  repeated made the work a delight to hear. Blendulf and Lewis were well-matched – neither were flamboyant or flowery, both precise and retrained and allowing the beauty of the music to speak for itself. Lewis’ playing was focused; he moved his head slightly or made a small flourish with his hand, but mostly it was only his fingers that moved, flying fluidly across the keys as he played with intense concentration, each note crisp.

Lewis and Blendulf exited the stage four times following the conclusion of the concerto, only to be brought back with ongoing applause from the thrilled audience.

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2019 Artist in Residence Paul Lewis. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

After the interval, the audience returned to their seats full of anticipation for the next stage of QSO’s Mahler cycle following the fabulous Alondra Conducts Mahler 3 last November. We were not disappointed – Mahler’s fourth symphony was a delightful rollercoaster, as filled with light and shade as Mozart’s concerto.

Grounded in German folk music and poems, Mahler’s fourth symphony is one of his shorter and least dramatic, evoking a child’s perspective of what Heaven must be like and all the earthly concerns of those contemplations – plentiful food, song and dance, the incomparable heavenly music. The first movement featured grand brass and sleigh bells; the second was more ominous; and the third was soothing with a sombre undercurrent. Morgan England-Jones’ performance in the final movement was filled with personality and her rich, high voice gave me goosebumps. She certainly brought a childlike quality of expression to her performance, in the best way. The Concert Hall sat in absolute silence for a full five seconds after the end of the movement, listening for the faint, final strains of the symphony, before bursting into applause.

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Morgan England-Jones performs with Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra in their entirety paint an impressive picture, with so many musicians onstage at once and unified in movement like a well-oiled machine. At the climax of the third movement, especially, the sight of so many bows in motion was stunning. The orchestra delivered a truly delightful evening of music, and a promising start to the 2019 season.

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