Joy of Joys

February 9, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The Sydney Symphony began its 80th year of music-making with a whimper, then a bang…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.
The first concert in the Ausgrid Master Series opened with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting just 23 string players in Metamorphosen, a tone poem by Rickard Strauss. A complex progression of harmonies conveyed the most profound sadness as Strauss reflected upon the Second World War destruction of the National Theatre in Munich, the Vienna State Opera and a large part of Dresden. This was not just an artistic loss for Germany, but for the world.

Vladamir Ashkenazy

Michael Nagy

The piece put the orchestra’s finest string players under the spotlight as the sorrow was passed around, sometimes in small groups and sometimes as solo passages. It illustrated why the SSO is so strong in its string playing with these musicians at its heart. Once the players had engaged the audience there was no let-up in the intensity of the meditation until it finally faded into silence.
Interval saw frenzied furniture arrivals as the stage was transformed to accommodate Beethoven’s blockbuster multiple requirements of strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, four vocal soloists and choir stalls filled to the brim with singers. The spectacle of such forces created anticipation in the full house – and nobody was disappointed.
While the ninth is Beethoven’s last and longest symphony, as well as being the first to include singers, it was never allowed to drag under Ashkenazy’s baton. In fact, during the second movement, (molto vivace – presto) the maestro set his podium a-rocking with such force that his score flew from his music stand to the ground where it was gathered up like a football by a quick thinking cellist and returned to the podium.
The standout had to be the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, prepared by Brett Weymark. There was a moment of magic when, after spending most of the symphony as a black and white backdrop, the choir suddenly stood and released its ode to joy message with tremendous power and precision- and without reading from a score.
At the front end of the performers’ ranks the four soloists (soprano Lorina Gore, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, baritone Michael Nagy and tenor James Egglestone ) managed to command a hearing above the accompaniment of orchestra and choirs, no doubt the result of fine tuning by Ashkenazy who is obsessed by balance.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Brett Weymark

Of the soloists, Nagy was the most impressive with a rich baritone voice that filled the concert hall.
Although there were many uplifting passages from the orchestra, especially in the first and fourth movements, the second movement produced some wobbles from the horns and some muddy timing among the reeds. That will probably be corrected in subsequent performances.

SSO Opera House concert 8 February 2012. Further performances of this concert are scheduled for February,  10, 11 and 13.

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 pianist. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.

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