Well, it’s only been a few short weeks since Umberto Clerici was named the new Chief Conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, kicking off officially in 2023, but it’s clear that he’s already raring and ready to go with this program, which covers some serious orchestral heavy-hitters.
The big drawcard for this concert was star cello soloist Daniel Müller-Schott’s performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto. It would be fair to say that Müller-Schott is one of the best and brightest cellists working today, and looking over just his recorded discography alone, it’s pretty much a who’s who of classical music. He’s recorded the Elgar before with the Oslo Philharmonic and André Previn in a fine performance, so it’s a piece that he knows intimately. Still, the big question with any cellist’s performance of this pinnacle of the repertoire is always how a performer escapes from the looming shadow of Jacqueline du Pré’s famous recording, which tends to leave a mark on other cellists’ takes.
Interestingly, in his mid-2000s recorded version, Müller-Schott took the piece in a rather considered manner, but here, more than a decade-and-a-bit later, he wholeheartedly embraced the rich romanticism in the work. Powerful vibrato and surging crescendos propelled his playing (right up to the peak of the sky-high scales that appear throughout the first movement), but it was also clear that there was an immediate rapport with fellow cellist Clerici. Key moments saw them share a glance (and a smile), and, amid the torrents of applause at the triumphant conclusion of the piece, the two men beamed like old friends. Müller-Schott followed up with a rolling encore – Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No 3 in C Major BWV 1009 that saw the cellist relishing the momentary clashes throughout, to which the audience responded with yet more applause.
After the interval was Mahler’s Symphony No 1, ‘Titan’, a work that I have heard played many, many times, but one which I don’t think I’ll ever be sick of. It’s simultaneously dark and rather twisted (that eerie Frère Jacques round!), and yet one which leaves the listener feeling somehow cleansed by the end of its hour-or-so length – it’s the aural equivalent of a detox, but it actually works. Despite its ubiquity, it remains quite a test for a conductor in controlling the minute shades of texture and timbre in Mahler’s detailed orchestration, and also teasing out the web of meanings behind the music. Here, Clerici demonstrated why he was chosen to be QSO’s new head honcho with an interpretation that was both nuanced and powerful. Speaking before the performance began, he said that the piece is ultimately about “trying to lift [ourselves] to a different level, to be heroes . , , to be a better part of humanity”.
QSO clearly responded to Clerici’s passion. The long, static string chords of the first movement Langsam. Schleppend (Slowly. Dragging) allowed the wind and brass players plenty of time for their echoing bird calls and chirrups, while Clerici still gave the peasant dance of the second movement plenty of timbral detail. Principal bassist Phoebe Russell’s viol-like clarity of tone in the solo opening of the hypnotic third movement funeral march was laser-focused, and finally the fourth movement Stürmisch bewegt began with a cataclysmic bang, with Clerici tearing some truly ferocious sounds out of the QSO (the brass here were in particularly fine form).
This was an impressively confident and ambitious performance from the pair of QSO and Clerici, and it’s certainly clear to the audience that the orchestra appreciates his direction as well. It’ll be fascinating to see how he and the orchestra continue to work together as his role becomes official in 2023, but for now this concert was a wholly successful demonstration of just why he was chosen for the role.