A mixture of familiar and challenging music

July 5, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Stark English contrasts and Russian familiarity made for a rewarding program by the SSO last night as part of the Ausgrid Master Series…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.


David Robertson

The orchestra was conducted by David Robertson who was making his first appearance to Sydney audiences after being named chief conductor and artistic director to succeed Vladimir Ashkenazy in 2014. From this sample, we can look forward to a change of style both in conducting and repertoire once Robertson takes the helm.

The concert began with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, a piece for a very large strings-only orchestra augmented by two string ensembles, one of nine players and one of four. No doubt the purists will nod sagely and say that this is important musical architecture, but it seems to me that the sound would be the same if the ensemble players were simply part of the orchestra rather than sitting high and dry at the back in separate little picnic groups.

Anyway, the music said it all. Like much of Vaughn Williams, the modal Fantasia is the embodiment of traditional Englishness at its finest. The orchestra showed off its superb string playing with rich and sometimes wistful, fading passages.

There was a little fun after the piece had finished. The conductor took his bow and exited through the left hand wing of the stage, only to reappear a short time later to make a brief Groucho Marks type detour at the back of the stage and scuttle back into the wings again. He looked as though he taken a wrong turn on the way to the gents. I immediately liked him for that – although I didn’t really know why.

Maybe a reason came to light in the next piece, a violin concerto by another English composer, Thomas Ades. Maestro Robertson took up the microphone and explained the upcoming piece, which came in three movements: Rings, Paths and Rounds. Not only that, but he, the soloist (Anthony Marwood for whom the concerto was written in 2005) and the orchestra gave us a tasting plate from each of the movements so we might be prepared for what was about to be served. Not everybody would have liked this pre-performance explanation, but I found it helpful, since we were about to be launched into a very unfamiliar sound spectrum.

Although serious musicologists will see pleasing complex patterns and colours in the concerto, the average concertgoer would be challenged by it.

Marwood himself seemed challenged as he coaxed a variety of uncharacteristic noises from his fiddle. He also needed the score on hand to keep himself from being lost in the jungle of orchestral sounds which included squeals, growls, cages full of very small, very excited birds and some magnificent, monstrous flatulence from the brass bass. Having said that, Marwood showed what an accomplished violinist he is when occasionally stumbling upon a few conventional bars.

While this Thomas Ades violin concerto is not a piece that you will hear in an elevator or as soothing background at the day spa, it was a welcome affront to the Wednesday crowd whose members can become too complacent and too comfortable with safer fare. Bravo to who ever chose it.

After intermission (where somebody remarked that the violin concerto would tilt the opera house bar service towards spirits) we came back to the familiar world of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony in B minor.

Interestingly the positioning of the players had changed for the third time that evening.  Robertson had placed his string players right across the front of the stage, with double bases now platformed on the left rather than the right. The percussion had decamped and moved too. All credit to him for remembering where everybody was without looking up to find them.

Fraser Beath McEwing

And Robertson himself worked a switch too, by popping in and out of the wings on the right hand side of the stage instead of the left. Maybe he got lost in the labyrinth again.

From the outset it was clear that the orchestra responds very well to David Robertson who, by the way, is a very demonstrative conductor and probably keeps a chiropractor or two busy. The brass, in particular, was tight and robust, while some beautifulaly liquid sounds drifted out of the woodwinds.

Because everybody knows the sixth it takes an exciting interpretation to break through the familiarity. Robertson did it, holding back and articulating the famous theme from the first movement, dancing through the awkward 5/4 time of the second and tucking into the third with gusto, drawing some early applause from the Wednesday nighters.

Of the fourth movement one distinguished observer thought Robertson had not handled it with enough melancholy  – to respect the failing mental state of Pyotr Ilyich, but I didn’t agree. While Robertson’s serving of the sadness did not have audience members craning forward to hear, it did wring the heart with its tempi and blending of sounds.


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.


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