MELBOURNE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: Composer Nigel Westlake’s remarkable tribute to his late son was the absolute highlight of this latest MSO concert.
The title of this concert caused a double-take, but it was correct. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra had invited Richard Tognetti – strongly associated with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – to be the MSO’s director and soloist in the first half of the program.
However, having heard the entire concert I felt that, while the title might be a magnet for the audience, it gave the wrong emphasis to the program. Yes, Tognetti played Mendelssohn – and Beethoven – but it was the second half of the concert that was most memorable.
This was devoted to a single work: Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli, featuring composer Nigel Westlake conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and young treble soloist Blakely McLean Davies, in the powerful work Westlake wrote to honour his late son.
Raw emotion was never far away but was contained, in the interests of the best possible performance. Westlake chose to address the audience via loudspeaker before the work, to explain the tragic circumstances of his son’s being taken too soon, and the creative – and cathartic – process of developing the Requiem.
It is rare to experience a performance like this, which was about so much more than the music. The orchestra and choir (superbly prepared by chorus master Jonathan Grieves-Smith) appeared to concentrate their entire selves on delivering every note as Westlake would want, and the intensity was palpable.
Westlake’s earlier work on the IMAX documentary Solarmax found a new resonance in the Requiem, which more than once made a play on the words “sun” and “son”. But the new work had its own spectacular moments, as when a burst of percussion led to the choir’s almost hypnotic repetition of “tides and currents”.
In contrast to the brilliant percussion and powerful choruses were moments of reflection such as the chorale “Nasce la gioia la mia” – and the two treble solos. Blakely McLean Davies showed a maturity beyond his years, both musically and in his ability to hold the stage.
His second solo segued into the chorus “Lo! Truth lives among the stars” and the dramatic contrasts of the final “O Sol Almo Immortale” with its hushed and respectful ending. Westlake has done more than pay tribute to his son; he has composed his greatest work yet.
As the impact of the Requiem was so powerful I do not intend to review in detail the earlier part of the concert, which comprised Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolan Op.62, and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64.
These are standards for the MSO, which delivered an impressive performance of the two. Likewise, Tognetti is one of Australia’s best-known violinists and deservedly so.
The problem as I saw it, was Tognetti’s dual role as director and soloist. There is a reason why orchestras turned to baton-wielding conductors as they grew in size; furthermore, both Beethoven and Mendelssohn composed works with an impressive range of dynamics, contrast in tempo and other subtleties that cry out for concentrated leadership.
Tognetti has proved many times with the ACO that he can give of his best as a soloist and also direct a chamber ensemble with an eye to every player. However, directing the large MSO from his position as violin soloist was an unreasonable ask, and although the music satisfied, it was not a five-star performance – as the Westlake Requiem unquestionably was.
Rating: Four stars
Tognetti plays Mendelssohn
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Blakely McLean Davies: treble
Nigel Westlake: conductor
Richard Tognetti: violin
BEETHOVEN Coriolan Overture, Op.62
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E minor
WESTLAKE Nigel Missa Solis - Requiem for Eli
Melbourne Town Hall
Please note: video below video shows the Sydney premiere of Westlake's Missa Solis – Requiem for Eli, performed by the Sydney Symphony in October 2011.