Ben and Gus don’t let you off lightly: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 9, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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A program of Britten and Mahler is not for those who want to hum tunes or tap feet, as demonstrated by last night’s APT Master Series SSO concert at the Sydney Opera House.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Conductor, Sydney born and educated Simone Young, along with a near capacity audience, had to engage with conflict, deep-seated and often obscure meaning, and a challenging sound palate to get the best out of the two works. But there were rich rewards for those who took the journey.

The program began with Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, Op.18, a nine part work ‘for high voice and string orchestra’ based on the poetry of a nutty, drug-fancying French teenager called Arthur Rimbaud (1854 –1891). On this occasion tenor Steve Davislim provided the ‘high voice’. In addition to the obtuse poetry, Britten was probably attracted to the drama of Rimbaud’s short, rambunctious life, which included being shot (but not killed) by an older, previously happily married poet, Paul Verlaine, who Rimbaud pulled into a steamy love affair. Britten put music to Rimbaud’s poetry, seeing merit in its darkness.

Steve Davislim, blessed with a powerful, rich voice, tackled the nine poems with commitment, singing scoreless with operatic intensity. Because he only had strings to compete with, he was able to clearly articulate the often-disturbing poems. Britten’s music was, at times, evocative, and unquestionably skilfully performed, but I won’t be going into debt to hear it again.


Steve Davislim Photo :Rosa Frank

The opposite was the case with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor. When you consider that Mahler was a ‘part time’ composer, since he made his living as a conductor, his musical output was remarkable. It has given him a leader-board position among the symphonists of the 19thcentury as well as being one of today’s most analysed and discussed composers. If there is an awkward silence in a conversation with former PM, Paul Keating, the mention of Mahler will get it going again apace.

Mahler is also one of the most difficult composers to conduct, with his massive and varied orchestras, where sometimes the majority can sit counting rests while three or four players wander off on a side trip. At other times, the conductor would need ten arms to direct the full scatter of competing instruments.

Simone Young

It is almost as though the sixth symphony was written as a counter balance to the happiness of Mahler’s life at the time, such is its drama and tragedy. And typically, Mahler gives his audience a weep-worthy movement that somehow keeps clear of the sugar bowl.

Last night’s Mahler Sixth was a triumph for conductor and orchestra alike, right from the first A major chord to the final, enormous, ‘everybody in’ A minor chord, this was a performance to be remembered. Granted, at 80 minutes, it was something of an endurance test, but never once did Simone Young let it drag. Even in the second Andantemovement, with tissues being groped for, she maintained the momentum. And the final movement, which goes on for the best part of half an hour, seemed to fly past in some of the most exacting and exciting playing I’ve heard from the SSO.

While a Mahler orchestra of that size, where wind and percussion were double the usual number of instruments and were joined by a whole array of other, rarely used instruments, it is not difficult to make hugely loud and arresting noises. The flip side

is coordination and accuracy, which is where Young and the SSO nailed it. While I couldn’t detect a weakness in the entire array, I came away especially remembering the brass, firing notes like rifle shots.

The concert had its visual attractions too. Simone Young conducts with forceful, but fluid gymnastic movements, her massive mane of hair augmenting the effect. She became so lost in the performance at one point that a swooping deep knee bend led her to knock the music off the stand of a second violinist. Then there was the percussionist who had to move with controlled haste between his drums, cowbells that were at the top of the choir stall stairs and then return to wield a huge hammer to strike a wooden beam at three different points in the final movement. I’ve never heard a bigger or more satisfying sound at the Sydney Opera House.

SSO Opera House concert 8 August 2018

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on 


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