One of the best: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

February 26, 2021 by Fraser McEwing
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Like a rich layer of icing on a cake that may not have been to everybody’s taste, the SSO sent us home last night haunted by Saint-Saens Symphony No.3, the much loved ‘organ symphony’.

Dane Lam

Prior to that, the masked audience heard two contemporary works: the second in the Fifty Fanfares Commission series, this one titled Gravity and Levity on the Sunbreathing Earth by 54-year-old Lyle Chan, and Water by Jonny Greenwood.

Despite a somewhat pretentious title, Chan’s eight-minute piece far exceeded my expectations. Beautifully constructed and accessible, it employed most of the fully stocked orchestra, most of the time, and finished with a grand theme which was picked up by various sections before an all-in. This could have been an impressive movement from a symphony. More Lyle Chan, please.

Now 50, Jonny Greenwood is a highly accomplished musician and composer, coming up through the ranks of the legendary Radiohead Rock Band, to a profusion of film music composition and, more recently, writing classical works such as Water. Born in England, he became a multi-instrumentalist, able to play lead guitar (Rolling Stone ranked him among the greatest guitarists of all time) keyboards, harmonica, viola and drums. With that background, he would appreciate the challenges of genre-hopping. While many films use classical music, there is little film music that makes it into the classical repertoire.

Water, it must be said, demonstrated a commitment to symphonic writing, albeit for a tiny orchestra bordering on an ensemble. Among its numbers was a strikingly clad, seated, sitar player, largely hidden from view by the other musicians and largely unheard – even though his fingers were busy. Water’s difficult, multi-layered score began evocatively living up to its title, but the character of the tranquil water underwent some dramatic changes before a build-up of urgent percussive beats which I couldn’t help hearing (probably unfairly) as charging horses. The end of the eighteen-minute piece had no coda or final statement; it just stopped dead. Nevertheless, Greenwood is a composer with a great sense of orchestral possibility and is a challenging groundbreaker.

Sydney Town Hall

Following close on the heels of the first SSO concert this year, we got another crowd favourite, this time the Saint-Saens organ symphony to close the concert. But first, a word about the Sydney Town Hall organ – which I plead guilty to not having heard previously. By delving into dusty files, I discovered it was completed in 1899, the work of Hill & Son, of London. It was instantly famous for its 64-foot-long contra trombone stop, but more than that, it remains the world’s largest organ without any electrical action components. Luckily, its wind is motor-driven – saving the need to assemble a battalion of bellowers out the back. Although it is 122 years old, it has had only a handful of improvements and changes – apart from restoration. Thus, we were hearing history. Unlike the Opera House organ, where the organist is up on the high diving board, the Town Hall organist sits just slightly elevated at the back of the orchestra, which meant that the audience could watch David Drury wriggling across his seat for the foot pedals and working the stops.

Camille Saint-Saens considered his organ symphony to be the pinnacle of his musical achievements. It was also his last symphony. Completed and premiered in 1886, with two of the four movements engaging the organ, the piano gets also plenty of demanding notes for two and four hands – remembering that Camille was a formidable keyboard player who wrote dazzling piano concertos. In the year the symphony was completed, his friend Franz Liszt died and Saint-Saens dedicated the work to him.

Fraser Beath McEwing

I’ve heard the organ symphony many times but this was a standout. Lam brought out tonal colours with both tenderness and verve. And then that breathless passage when the organ entered, was played slower and gentler than usual, as the deep, gorgeous, pedal notes shuddered through the Town Hall. In the last movement, we heard the organ in full voice when Drury let it hugely exhale. The final chord, held by Lam until it seemed the world was about to end, finished it – to uproarious applause.

Conductor, Dane Lam, born to a Chinese father and Australian mother in Brisbane, has been musically enriched by his dual-culture background. He was principal conductor and artistic director of the Xi’an Symphony Orchestra in China until he returned home last year to take up the position of Opera Queensland’s inaugural resident conductor and associate music director. He visited Sydney in January to conduct Don Giovanni at the Opera House before Covid-19 threw its debilitating net over everything.

Still youthful, but already called ‘maestro’, Lam is unpretentious. He says: “over the years, as I return to Australia, I get a greater and greater sense of who I really, authentically, am. I’ve lived in New York, London, and Xi’an and travelled the world, yet I never experience a greater thrill than making music at home and sharing this art with the country I love.”

I, for one, loved his conducting. Contemporary music is usually difficult to both play and conduct. Lam handled the demanding two pieces with enthusiasm and compassion. And when it came to the organ symphony, his reading had my eyes welling up.

SSO in the Sydney Town Hall concert, 25 February 2021

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