A bouquet of beautiful Italian overtures illuminates Muscat’s newest concert venue

The second concert given by the Filarmonica della Scala under the internationally acclaimed Korean conductor, Myung-Whun Chung on their recent visit to Oman was held in the newly opened ‘House of Musical Arts’ last Wednesday evening. Again the diminutive Chamber Hall was filled to capacity with Muscat’s devoted music lovers, and the hundred-strong ensemble spread across the whole stage. Maestro Chung is clearly respected and adored by his musicians, and the sound he can elicit from the Milanese Sinfonia is second to none. His conducting technique uses minimal, understated baton strokes until the orchestra moves to full, climactic tuttis and then his whole body becomes energetic and animated, almost becoming a visual illustration of the sound quality he wants to achieve. And achieve it he does.
The programme opened with a selection of overtures and intermezzi by the great Italian opera composers. Framed by the beloved works of Gioachino Rossini, Part 1 began with the amusing and essentially light-hearted Overture to his ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’. It must be said that the auditorium took some time to settle down to the pin-drop silence demanded by the quality of such a performance. People were allowed to enter during the music, and some disturbance at the back of the hall created a distraction for quite a while. The levity and brevity of the Italian Girl was followed by the equally delightful Prelude to Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’. The woodwind section shone here under Chung’s precise indication, and the piece fairly waltzed through. Keeping with Italy’s most admired composer, the darker strains of ‘La Forza del Destino’ was born out in the familiar string themes, performed with La Scala’s signature warm, rich togetherness in the iconic Overture.
The penultimate, ‘Intermezzo’ from Giacomo Puccini’s much loved, 1904 ‘Madama Butterfly’ was as sublime and gorgeous as it was evocative of far-eastern exoticism. Puccini does this predictably through his use of pentatonic scales, but also through sweeping harp effects (Olga Mazzia) and an entertaining array of percussion instruments to suggest birds, cherry blossom and heartache. The performance moved from delicate, tender moments of Japanese love themes to dramatic chords of doom in climactic passages which did credit to both Filarmonica and Conductor. Finally came Rossini’s substantial ‘William Tell’ Overture. Opening with subtle, mysterious double-bass melodies, few listeners would be aware of the range of orchestral colour and development before the arrival of that oh so familiar-from-film-and-TV-scores “Gallop”, with full tutti energy and spirit. The brass really excelled in this work, with hunting horns and heralding fanfares bringing the forty-minute first half to a rousing, uplifting conclusion.
Part two was a grand performance of Czech composer Antonin Dvořák’s famous, ‘Symphony from the New World’ in E minor, which premiered in 1893 with the New York Philharmonic. The fifty-minute work is filled with well known themes throughout its four movements, though the second, ‘Largo’ is undoubtedly most prominent in the collective consciousness. The beautiful brass chorale was perfectly controlled, juxtaposed with the haunting, folk-like Cor Anglais melody. Dvořák explained that he did not incorporate Native American music in the symphony, but instead, ‘simply wrote original themes, embodying the peculiarities of North American indigenous music’. He cleverly combined two themes as the movement developed, with woodwind choir opposing the violins. The pizzicato bass strings suggested Native American rhythms as well as the pentatonic mode of the main melody. The first movement exploited all the colour of the Filarmonica’s brass section with its huge swells in the ‘Allegro Molto’, while the ‘Molto Vivace’ third movement was played precisely by woodwind fugal entries, interrupted by big rolls on the timpani (Daniel Martinez). The Major/minor conflict was treated by Chung without flamboyant exaggeration.
Finally, the well known fiery, ‘Allegro con Fuoco’ was brought alive with its brilliant brass theme by a highly animated Chung, and the whole symphony came to a grand triumphant conclusion, with the Finale clearly in E Major.
Many curtain calls, bows, and ovations encouraged Myung-Whun Chung to speak directly to the audience, thanking the Italian orchestra for so many wonderful years – and a prepared encore! ‘Intermezzo Sinfonico’ from Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’, requiring the harp player to return to the stage, was played superbly and ‘with love’ by Filarmonica della Scala as they departed Muscat for Milan. But everyone present hoped they would return very soon.