The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 Season Opening Gala last night was billed as part of their curated ‘East Meets West’ experience, and featured violinist Lü Siqing, with whom the orchestra toured China in 2018. It opened with a short welcoming address from MSO Board Chairman Michael Ullmer, which gave way to an awkward video exhorting the capacity audience to donate to the MSO, disconcertingly accompanied by recorded music, in the presence of the silent orchestra.
The program that followed reveals that what constitutes East or West depends very much on the perspective of the observer, in its juxtaposition of the music of central Europe with two distinct manifestations of Russianness. Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 formed the concert’s heart, framed by Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, complete with the MSO Chorus and Tchaikovsky’s beloved Symphony No. 6, nicknamed the ‘Pathétique’. Borodin and Tchaikovsky often find themselves (somewhat too schematically) placed on opposite sides of a divide between the nationalist composers of the ‘Five’, which included Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, and ‘Europeanised’ composers like Tchaikovsky. This internal East–West duality is encapsulated in the contrast between the ‘Asiatic’ orientalism of the Polovtsian Dances, by turns voluptuous (feminine) and barbarous (masculine), and Tchaikovsky’s interpretation of the central genre of the Western art tradition.