Classic Melbourne review by Julie McErlain, 21 February 2022  

When we attend the final concert in any arts festival there is always an abundance of emotion at large. Tonight we recognised the extraordinary vision and planning of retiring Musical Director Chris Howlett, who successfully programmed nine concerts of amazingly varied vocal and instrumental works in this year’s 10th Anniversary Marathon. Howlett has fulfilled his ideals, celebrating a valued classical music community radio station, bringing together scores of volunteers and music lovers into two prestigious Melbourne Recital Centre concert halls, and programming an incredible breadth of music by one composer – this year, Tchaikovsky. We shared the excitement of hearing extraordinary young talented musicians launching their careers in newly opened venues with professional seasoned artists. The only problems shared by some of us today, was how to make the difficult choice of which concerts to attend and how to get to the MRC on time following city public transport disruptions, with careful hitch-hiking along City Rd sometimes being the only possible alternative!

In this closing program, the unique and renowned orchestral body of medical and health practitioners, Corpus Medicorum, proved to us that, as far as amateur orchestras go, this one is hard to beat. With thirty violins, thirteen violas, eleven celli and four double basses fully taking up front stage, this was quite an army of strings leading the way in Tchaikovsky’s dramatic Hamlet, Overture-Fantasia in F minor. This rarely heard work was deeply foreboding and intense in texture and volume. The Russian in Tchaikovsky was fully expressed in this intense and forceful musical language. While not strictly programmatic, the essential forces of treachery and threat were relentless, unchanging through solid blocks of orchestral texture with emphatic brass and timpani heralding Hamlet’s fate.  Contrasting episodes of writing for woodwind choir only gave temporary relief from the inevitable betrayal and death. A warm oboe solo suggested Ophelia’s sorrowful spirit, but even a rare contrasting section of strong flute solos accompanied just by violins, brought no calm or normality to the musical portrayal of madness and tragedy. The final section turned the orchestra into a forthright army of dense military proportions, with brass instruments sounding the return of a victorious Prince Fortinbras. Victory was without celebration. Hamlet’s last words and tragic end was felt, as the voluminous orchestral sound was reduced to celli marking a slow descent against the timpani’s funereal beats and fading sustained horns.

And then there was peace.

3MBS 2019 Young Performer Charlotte Miles is building a shining career, this year developing further as an Emerging Artist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  In Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra in A major, Miles fully showed explicit and distinct characteristics in each variation, from Romantic long melodic lines, graceful contours, quirky playfulness, technical bravura and fine ornamentation. Corpus Medicorum admirably adapted to their new role as a supportive and sensitive accompaniment for Miles’s strong timbral sound, which was particularly robust and assertive in the cello’s lowest tones. A high point came after a long and passionate cadenza was followed by softly spoken and colourful pizzicato lines, with intermittent woodwind fills rounding out a pleasing episode. A more dramatic Coda concluded a highly enjoyable Rococo journey, and the soloist was rewarded with a lengthy and quite thunderous applause.

Already a winner of numerous competitions, including the 2021 MRC Bach Competition and 2017 Australian National Fine Music Young Virtuoso Award, 17-year-old Leon Fei is an inspiring, mature and confident performer. His opening unaccompanied entry in the Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major Op. 33 displayed everything an audience wants to hear – passion, excitement, coloured melodical lines and brilliant technique. Exciting cadenzas were full of diverse flavours and rocket-powered notes in the very highest upper harmonic reaches. There were many demands placed on Corpus Medicorum in sudden tempo changes, but under the skilled leadership of conductor Keith Crellin they demonstrated their high standards of musicianship and teamwork, particularly in the beautiful second movement where individual soloists shone and more sublime background hues complemented the soloist.

What a brilliant way to conclude a day of Tchaikovsky’s music, with an accomplished future generation star sensitively drawing out the heart and soul of this composer’s emotive music. Pulses were racing as Fei led the orchestra through the final sequences of brilliant flourishes in the Allegro Vivacissimo, leaving us holding our breath in admiration of this exciting young musician.

The 10th Year Anniversary Tchaikovsky Marathon proved to be another extraordinary event showcasing one composer in an array of superb musical programming. Director Chris Howlett and 3MBS are to be heartily congratulated for bringing this wonderful event to live and streamed audiences, supporting classical music in Melbourne.

Image of Charlotte Miles and Corpus Medicorum taken by Keith Burrows