Unswerving assurance of Ehnes' violin a winner

Garrick Ohlsson
The Age

By Clive O'Connell

FOR classical music devotees, this year was mainly notable for a significant situational change. The Hamer Hall complex closed in early July for redevelopment, the most immediate effect on the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. While most will welcome the promised expansion of restaurants and bars, the central problem will be improving the space's acoustic qualities, preferably without the massive plastic discs that have hovered over audiences for nearly 30 years, often with little effect.

The MSO and the Australian Chamber Orchestra made the leap back to the Melbourne Town Hall, where many of us experienced musical performances before the Arts Centre's construction.

The well-remembered sound properties of the older building favouring bass instruments could be tolerated when a performance reached top-notch level, as happened twice this year during MSO concerts.

On his second visit here, Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes gave the year's outstanding concert experience in September/October with a character-full reading of the Elgar Concerto, one of the most substantial in the repertoire and demanding focus and intelligence from both soloist and orchestra. Mark Wigglesworth gave Ehnes a deftly dovetailed support, the soloist working with unswerving assurance and sending Elgar's melodic richness soaring in a flawless line that extracted the vital point from every phrase.

Doing double service as an MSO guest and a visitor to the Australian National Academy of Music, Garrick Ohlsson made a brilliant contribution to Chopin's 200th birthday celebrations. Putting most other attempts in the shade, the American pianist's July 14 recital in South Melbourne turned everything he touched to musical gold; the Scherzo No. 3, the B minor Sonata, the F minor Fantasy and the Ballade No. 3 all came across as if newly minted. Two days later, he gave an object lesson in interpreting the Rachmaninov Third Concerto with a searing combination of technical prowess and intellectual rigour.

In an uplifting harnessing of forces, the Consort of Melbourne collaborated with that expert early music ensemble, La Compania, in a thoroughly engrossing account of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.

This night was demanding for all participants, vocal and instrumental, as Warwick Trevelyan-Jones directed a harnessed but ebullient celebration of sonorities, the stress about articulation often associated with period instrument playing nowhere to be found as the viols, sackbuts and cornetti bounded through this seminal work, escorting an 18-strong group of singers gifted with two splendid tenors.

While the National Academy had more than its share of successes in 2010, exemplifying a smooth succession in directorship between the Dean brothers, a stand-out occasion on April 1 featured young artist Ashley Smith playing the Clarinet Concerto by Magnus Lindberg, one of the academy's favoured composers throughout the year. For once, a talented performer fully identified with the music he was playing; it is impossible to imagine a more committed, sympathetic interpretation.

The Atos Trio, which won every prize possible at the 2007 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, finally returned for its celebratory Musica Viva tour, reminding us all on November 6 how small-ensemble music-making should sound by revisiting their masterful account of Schubert in B flat: elegant, phrased with outstanding tact, full of good humour.

Yes, the occasional disappointment emerged. Olli Mustonen's hacking around of the Beethoven Piano Concertos 2 and 4 managed to alarm and irritate; the Melbourne Musicians bit off too much when accompanying veteran pianist Ian Holtham through the first Chopin concerto; the Seraphim Trio sounded unexpectedly ill at ease in their July encounter with Schumann in D minor and Haydn in F sharp. But the most pointless exercise came at the start to the year's musical round with the MSO backing the Beach Boys - or what's left of them; a triumph of incautious amplification meant that the orchestra at full bore was rarely audible, their efforts turned to mime as mediocrities occupied the limelight.