Robertson nails it!

February 13, 2014 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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If a superb orchestral performance and thunderous applause were what conductor David Robertson wanted, he would have left the Sydney Opera House a happy man last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

 

David Robertson and the SSO  Photo: Ken Butti

David Robertson and the SSO Photo: Ken Butti

This was Robertson’s debut as chief conductor and artistic director of the Sydney Symphony, playing works by Stravinsky, Adams and Beethoven. While the capacity audience may have welcomed him out of friendly respect when he first walked on stage, the applause at the end was all about appreciation for his musicianship and the quality he was able to extract from the orchestra.

In choosing Stravinsky and Adams for the first half of the program, Robertson took a risk. This was not comfortable music.

The Symphony in Three Movements has the urgency, variety and surprises that typify Stravinsky, but not the soaring confrontations of Firebird or The Rite of Spring. It is described as ‘mid-century neoclassical style’, seldom repeating or developing themes but instead always forging into new territory.  Certainly there are moments of stirring rhythms and pensive introspection, especially in the second andante movement, but this symphony remains an acquired taste. That might explain why the SSO hadn’t given it an outing since 2002.

The Stravinsky called for a big orchestra with a conventional layout; I mention this for what came later in the Beethoven. Woodwind and brass alone comprised no less than 23 players, and to that you can add harp and piano. Actually, there were two lidless grand pianos side by side, shoehorned into the orchestra, although only one was used in the performance. Perhaps the other one was a spare in case of a malfunction. At certain times both the piano and harp sounded as though they might rise to the position of soloist in a concerto, but Igor took his foot off the throttle before that could happen.

If Stravinsky stirred the nervous system, John Adam’s piece, Absolute Jest, picked it up and ran with it. This was an Australian premiere, and its single 23-minute movement challenged many accepted conventions of symphonic music. In addition to a whopper orchestra, Absolute Jest places a string quartet at the front to act as a concerto group soloist, although it struggles to fulfil the role. In this case, the players were the Australian String Quartet. I’d venture to say that the impact of Absolute Jest would have been little different without the quartet, fine musicians though they are.

David Robertson  Photo: Ken Butti

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

If the members of the orchestra were being paid by the note they all would have gone home wealthy. Adams shovelled in the hemidemisemiquavers, pinching bits of Beethoven along the way, which I suppose has a jestful side to it. Having said that, there were endearing moments, bearing out the programme notes’ claim that John Adams is one of the most performed of all living composers.

Once you came to terms with this unusual music, you realised what a brute it would be to conduct and now well David Robertson handled it. Avalanches of notes and rhythms were pelted at him, but he kept it all on track and under control – although he often had to resort to vigorous calisthenics to convey his interpretations to the orchestra.

After some deep breathing meditation at interval the crowd returned to the warming assurance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – my personal favourite of the nine. But we were in for another surprise as we sat down. Robertson had arranged the orchestra in a way that seemed peculiar. He’d split the first and second violins so that they fanned out either side of the podium, placed the cellos at 11 o’clock, brought the tympani down to violin level on the right hand side and put the six bull-fiddles one floor up, centre back.

Did this distribution work for the Beethoven? Absolutely!  The sound flowed out like some great, purposeful river. The double basses came into their own in the second (slow) movement when that wonderful theme was able to lean on lush musical foundation stones. The double-bass placement was a masterstroke by Robertson, along with his ability to hush the orchestra so that you had to concentrate to hear pianissimo passages and were then richly rewarded for your trouble. By the time the orchestra raced headlong into the final movement, the whole place was inwardly cheering. If this had been a football match Robertson would have been carried off shoulder high.

 

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

 

Comments

One Response to “Robertson nails it!”
  1. Dear Fraser,
    I was the pianist in the concert. Both pianos were used in the first half of the programme.
    One of the pianos was in normal tuning for Stravinsky, the other was tuned to E mean tone temperament as directed by John Adams for Absolute Jest. Some keys in this tuning sound radiant, others tense. You may have noticed the ‘out of tune’ final scale on the piano at the end of the Adams!
    They were both placed on stage to save time moving pianos between pieces.
    All best wishes,
    Susanne

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