Music review: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Hamer Hall

A program packed with excitement, but light on choral spectacle.

As the lights went down, the signature Suzuki tone chimes of Gondwana Choirs rang out.  The Children’s Choir poured through the audience and onto the stage to commence the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s (MSO) program of [Hector] Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. While Berlioz’s symphony was the star of the night, Michael Atherton’s atmospheric work Shall We Dream opened the show with a sense of wonder and [Felix] Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream filled out the rest of the first act to much applause. 

Considering Gondwana Choirs’ status as MSO’s 2023 Ensemble in Residence, the sparse time afforded to them in the program was disappointing. Similarly, the choice to have the Choirs’ limited time spent accompanying solo performances from Alexandra Oomens (a Gondwana alumna) and Stephanie Dillon (a former employee of the organisation) felt like a missed opportunity to showcase the Choirs’ cutting edge repertoire. 

Despite this, it was still clear the children of Gondwana Choirs possess sophisticated musicality and pronounce their ‘T’s with surgical precision – the latter alone requiring a good few hours of practice to achieve. Their professional performance is a hallmark of Gondwana Choirs and its founder, Lyn Williams, who was also the chorus director for this performance, . 

Family and friends of the Choirs were in for a symphonic treat nonetheless. 

Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an easily digestible work that’s full of variety to keep audiences entertained. The orchestra performed the work with gusto led by Conductor Jaime Martin.

Along with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Martin was the highlight of the night. Under his charge the orchestra imbued the piece with clear emotive expression that brought Berlioz’s personality to life through his music. Martin and the orchestra met Berlioz’s many musical challenges : fast changing dynamics, long moments building tension and elevating call and responses by utilising different areas of the music hall – to name a few. 

Martin matched Berlioz’s expressiveness through a shoulder nudge here, a strike towards the sky there, flicks of the wrist à la Bugs Bunny and playful engagement with members of the orchestra. 

Read: Musical review: Seven Little Australians, Stirling Theatre, WA

By putting technical prowess and emotive flair together, the MSO presented a performance that was joyous and often exhilarating. 

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Conductor: Jaime Martín

Symphonie Fantastique was performed 14-15 July 2023.

Jenna Schroder is an emerging arts critic, with a background in dance and voice, and an organiser at the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance. Outside of her union activism, Jenna can be found performing at The Improv Conspiracy, around the Melbourne comedy scene and producing independent work across multiple platforms. Twitter: @jennaschroder00