It’s a particular thrill to hear a beloved piece of music played live when you know it so well you can anticipate and revel in every note, melody and solo. And it’s a joy when that piece is played as radiantly as it was when Darwin Symphony Orchestra performed Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade on Saturday night.

The much-loved composition inspired by the tales of the 1001 Nights provided the theme and climax of the DSO’s spectacular opening concert for the year, which also featured two other exciting works: Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 41.

Though unfamiliar to me, Pärt’s six-minute homage to the 20th century British composer cast a mesmerising, almost hypnotic spell.

Three soft, widely spaced chimes of a lone bell, played by Ingrid Purich, open the Cantus. This is followed by the strings, which begin very softly and increase in intensity and volume as they meander through variants of a descending A minor scale, joining together in one big chord at the end. As the scales overlap at different speeds, punctuated by a seemingly random tolling of the bell, a wash of music emerges that conductor Jonathan Tooby likened to an auditory kaleidoscope.

Jonathan Tooby and Darwin Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Hannah Herbert

Introducing Mozart’s 41st Symphony, Tooby confessed that it was terrifying for classical musicians to play Mozart “because it is so precious, it’s so perfect.”

It was, he said, like being told to use a little chisel and hammer to cut into a diamond and make it perfect. “It’s terrifying because you know if you hit it in the wrong place, it’s going to explode and be useless.”

And yet the DSO players were clearly exhilarated while playing this perfectly cut musical diamond, so exuberant with joy, beauty and happiness.

They were led with great talent and energy by DSO’s guest Concertmaster Peter Clark, a core member of Sydney’s Omega Ensemble, who said: “In playing this work, it is impossible not to be caught up and transformed by the enormous energy and joy that Mozart summoned in the creation of this composition. The last movement features one of the greatest fugatos of all time. To bring it to life in performance is, each and every time, a revelation.”

Mozart’s longest and last symphony picked up its nickname, ‘Jupiter’, in London around 1820. Some think it’s a reference to the loftiness of Mozart’s ideas. Others say they can hear the “thunderbolts of Jupiter” in its impressive opening movement.

DSO guest Concertmaster Peter Clark. Photo © Hannah Herbert

The work begins with a short exclamation by the full orchestra answered gently by the violins. The first theme in the violins is then countered by a second melody in flute and oboe, with both melody and counter-melody running a graceful course with majestic, ceremonial flourishes. In the elegant second movement, the oboe, flute and bassoon seem to be searching for answers to the strings’ questions. With the audience happily applauding between each movement, the graceful, lilting Minuet followed enlivened with beautiful textures from the wind section.

But the real fireworks are reserved for the grand finale, whose masterful counterpoint of melodies requires racing fingers in the strings and builds to a crowning crescendo. The DSO answered the challenge brilliantly, with special honours for the virtuosity of the double basses in the finale, which swept the audience away with its magnificent power.

I had thought the first half of the program was magnificent, but I had to scale up my superlatives for the second half, when the full forces of the orchestra took the stage for Scheherazade. As Tooby joked in his introduction, Rimsky Korsakov picked up a thought from Dennis Denuto in The Castle in creating “the vibe” of the East with its opulence and exoticism. “You have to imagine yourself in a desert, maybe next to an oasis with a few date palms, big tents, Persian rug, a couple of cushions, someone keeping you cool with a palm frond, eating dates.”

The work’s unifying thread is the intricately winding violin solo, supported only by the harp, which represents Scheherazade telling tales to the Sultan, who, convinced of the unfaithfulness of all women, has vowed to kill each of his wives after the first night. Drawing on isolated episodes from The Thousand and One Nights poetry and folk tales, the suite struck me anew with its orchestral ingenuity.

From the first strains of the sweetly seductive violin solo tracing Scheherazade’s captivating tales – played with exquisite skill by Clark – the moods and melodic figures of this mystical world are in constant conversation. The thunderous opening builds through billowing cellos to evoke the tale of Sinbad and the Sea.

Rimsky-Korsakov was apparently a synaesthetic. His ears ‘saw’ the E Major melody in dark blue. The excitement builds in scale and intensity with pounding drums, sonorously pleading strings and gutsy tubas bringing the first movement to a close.

Jonathan Tooby and Darwin Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Hannah Herbert

The playing of the whole wind section was top class throughout. A highlight of the second movement was the cajoling melody for bassoon played with wistful reflectiveness by Rob Llewellyn, while third movement – like a cool drink on a hot day – featured some gorgeous flourishes from the clarinet, played winsomely by Laura Llewellyn, and dazzling flute solos from Emily Clements.

The fourth movement combines the lively cross-rhythms of a carnival with the Sultan’s ominous theme in dialogue with Scheherazade’s theme. The mood builds in intensity with marching rhythms in the horns and drums before all is swamped by the return of the sea theme from the first movement. Even the orchestra was agog as Clark gave Scheherazade the last word with a spinning violin solo emerging in gentle triumph over the Sultan’s bloodthirsty vow. Overall, the night was a magnificent achievement for this semi-professional orchestra.

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