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Melbourne Orchestra brings sense of several places to Kennedy Center

Sir Andrew Davis, chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. (Dario Acosta)

First impressions are tricky. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, making its Kennedy Center debut on Wednesday under the auspices of Washington Performing Arts, offered a portfolio of a program: splashy displays, a featured soloist, a souvenir from home. And, at the outset, the orchestra and its chief conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, seemed content to be the smoothly competent model of a modern jet-setting ensemble. By the end, though, they revealed glimpses of a more compelling and idiosyncratic identity.

The showpieces, Maurice Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye” (“Mother Goose”) and Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite, bookended the concert with opulent Technicolor. Davis’s conducting — his waving hands lightly polishing each beat — provided cushion for each note. Ravel’s fairy tales became a collector’s cabinet of beautiful noises; in Stravinsky’s more extroverted fantasy the ensemble still exalted sonic splendor over narrative tension. Isolated moments hinted at more dangerous entertainment: the dark cloud of a chord near the end of Ravel’s “Beauty and the Beast” was ravishingly ominous, and the punctuations of Stravinsky’s “Infernal Dance” detonated with force. But the emphasis was on commodious spectacle.

The orchestra carried that comfortable patina into the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Soloist Garrick Ohlsson, though, seemed to gently goad the performance into something more extreme. Ohlsson used his pianistic soft power — a commanding technical arsenal deployed with judicious restraint — in the service of Beethoven’s penchant for insistence, pushing the first movement’s boil of trills and passagework to the foreground, making the slow movement’s pleas hushed and voluble by turn. By the rambunctious finale, ensemble and soloist were on the same quirky page, Ohlsson hammering out accents like a dancer gleefully unconcerned with decorum, sobriety, or anyone else’s toes. It was sharp fun.

Peter Sculthorpe’s “Earth Cry” was more serious, but further revealed personality beneath the proficiency. Sculthorpe’s 1986 essay, evoking both the grandeur and fragility of Australia’s ecosystem, was appropriately paradoxical: at once austere and rich. The music builds less by development than brooding accumulation; the counterpoint is stark. The tectonic buzz and growl of a didgeridoo, played with athletic skill by Harry Wilson, parleyed with the music, then settled beneath it like bedrock. “Earth Cry” achieved real, dramatic sweep.

Wilson offered a solo encore, demonstrating the didgeridoo’s additional range and in a way crystallizing the distinctive aspects of the concert. The orchestra’s own encore, an arrangement of “Londonderry Air” by the Australian maverick Percy Grainger, backed this up, the strings unleashing a saturated intensity that belied the melody’s familiar lilt. The strongest moments of the evening came when the orchestra dug into a palpable sense of sound, space, and identity — including its own.