Left - Daniel Hope. © Felix Broede /Deutsche Grammophon
There is something about a waltz that is irresistible. So thought H. L. Mencken, who noted the waltz's lovely yet insidious nature, finally describing it as 'magnificently improper - the art of tone turned lubricious.'
As a musical form, the waltz turns hand-in-hand with contradiction. Its graceful sophistication and sweeping optimism seem to score the advance of human progress as it glides effortlessly across history's page. Yet its seductive rhythm also masks darker passions and a lurking sense of unease that all is not quite right.
A trip to the Titanic exhibition at Melbourne Museum emphasises this dissonance, where the waltz washes over the magnificent upper decks and all they represent, while in the boiler room below there lies only sweat, confinement and eventual death. And perhaps the most famous waltz of all, The Blue Danube, is at once the accompaniment to humankind's hopes and fears in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
With all this in mind, the MSO's Last Waltz concert is a well-chosen program of mixed feelings. Under the cheerful conducting of the esteemed Mario Venzago, the orchestra steps straight into Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. The most well-known of the Mephisto waltzes, the scene is a wedding feast at a village inn, where the virtuous musicians are whipped into a frenzy by the evil spirit Mephistopheles. Often performed as a piano piece, it is an invigorating experience with a full orchestra and the MSO attack it with appreciable relish. A flourish on the harp and a moment's pause mark the arrival of the final, frantic measures.
I must confess to being no classical music buff. Much of the technical skill and detail so far eludes me, nevertheless I succumb to its emotionally transporting effects. It takes me to a higher place I yearn to reach more often and inspires me to learn and understand the composition and technique that produces such spiritual uplift.
I say this because the second item on the program, the Brahms Violin Concerto, is a perfect example of such elation and frustration. To a classical novice, it feels at once more human than many pieces - sweeter, stronger and dancing delicately between the light and dark of major and minor key. Yet for all its passion, it is vexingly inaccessible. Who does not get the sense when listening to the frenetic violin solo (executed to rapturous applause here by versatile British virtuoso Daniel Hope) that something wonderful and poignant is happening? Yet my untrained ears are unable to pinpoint what it is. As we wend our way sleepily, cautious, then confident again, towards the resolution, I want to know more.
Ravel's La Valse seems to chart the rise and fall of waltz itself. It begins, colourful and commanding, with echoes of Strauss and swirling towards a crescendo which Ravel himself hoped would give 'the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling.' As the piece progresses, a note of anxiety enters. Twirling unstoppably, the piece threatens to rip itself apart until the momentum is broken and the orchestra instead engages in a rather unsettling dance of death towards the piece's conclusion. Symbolically, the very last measure is no longer scored in the waltz's distinctive 3/4 time.
The MSO have so far performed with the precision and verve for which they are well known. They reward themselves and their intoxicated audience with a more light-hearted ending to a turbulent performance - Haydn's Farewell. Sometimes called the Candle Symphony, this rich and soaring composition is perhaps most famous for the ending of its final movement. One by one the players finish their section, pack up their instruments and quietly leave, including the conductor, until only two violinists remain to bring the performance to a dignified finish. The MSO, under the influence of Mario Venzango's animated and ebullient conducting, play this for laughs and get them, until Venzago cheekily motions the audience to shush so we can hear the ending.
As someone who was once intimidated by classical music, for me it is concerts like these that really uncover the joy of the art form. The MSO is a class act - from programming to performance, every detail embraces the humanity of each composition and brings it alive with honour, compassion and dignity. The result is irresistible.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presents
BRAHMS Violin Concerto
RAVEL La valse
LISZT Mephisto Waltz No.1
HAYDN Symphony No.45 Farewell
Conductor Mario Venzago
Violin Daniel Hope
Venue: The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall
Dates: Saturday 26 June at 2pm & Monday 28 June at 6.30pm | Pre concert talk one hour prior with Mario Venzago
Tickets: $56 ‐ $140
Bookings: theartscentre.com.au or 1300 182 183 | Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 | www.mso.com.au