Review: Beethoven’s Emperor (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

QSO Conductor Laureate Johannes Fritzsch and pianist Daniel de Borah. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

It was a delight to be able to return QPAC’s Concert Hall on Friday night for Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s stirring final Maestro concert of 2020 – Beethoven’s Emperor. As well as being the 2020 season finale, this concert marks the end of a year-long global birthday party for Ludwig van Beethoven, born 250 years ago. The performance was also livestreamed, with the support of Brisbane City Council, and will soon be available on QSO’s YouTube channel.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Under the baton of Queensland Symphony Orchestra Conductor Laureate and former Chief Conductor Johannes Fritzsch, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor) was vigorous and lively, nuanced and evocative. Between the feeling of being back in the Concert Hall after almost a year (!!) away, the skill of the artists, moving in mesmerising coordination as they traversed the rises and falls of the piece, and the composition itself, it truly was a joyful and uplifting experience.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Daniel de Borah. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Joining Queensland Symphony Orchestra for Emperor was celebrated Australian pianist Daniel de Borah. It is always such a treat to see a master artist at work, and we were fortunate to be seated at an angle where de Borah’s fingers were easily visible, soaring over the keys with such grace and quickness that my eyes and ears could not agree – it seemed impossible that he was playing the notes at such speed, and yet with such impeccable skill.

Daniel de Borah performs Beethoven’s Emperor with Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

To rapturous applause, Daniel de Borah returned to the stage for an equally skillful encore and, following this, the configuration of the stage was adjusted – the piano removed, musicians taking places on the balcony above the Concert Hall, and Andrej Kouznetsov seated at the organ for Ottorino Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome).

Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Pines of Rome is the kind of musical storytelling I am more familiar with, as a classical music amateur still – something close to a movie score, with strong themes and a journey to follow through the movements. Composed in 1924, Pines of Rome forms part of the so-called Roman trilogy composed by Respighi, along with Fountains of Rome (1916) and Roman Festivals (1924), which reflect, in the words of his wife and biographer Elsa Olivieri Sangiacomo, “how [he] saw and felt the varied spirit of Rome”. The piece features the first instance of a pre-recorded sound as part of a musical score, the song of a nightingale in the third movement, and ranged, as flautist Alison Mitchell stated before the performance began, from the quietest playing you will hear in a concert hall to the very loudest, the kind that you feel in your whole body rather than only hearing – that is the magic of live music.

Johannes Fritzsch conducts Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Each movement of Pines of Rome is “set” in a different location – at the Villa Borghese, near a catacomb, the Janiculum, and the Appian Way, respectively – and has a distinct feeling and tone, beautifully drawn out by the musicians and through Fritzsch’s spirited conducting. The piece culminates in the grand and triumphant fourth movement, with the organ and trumpets booming, timpani rumbling and cymbals crashing to the finish.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Photographed by Peter Wallis.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra have been active in continuing to make music accessible throughout the pandemic – online, with Orchestra Over The Fence, then outdoors, and finally back onstage. Beethoven’s Emperor was a triumphant finale to an immensely difficult year, and a promise of more magnificent evenings of music to come in 2021.

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