A resoundingly satisfying performance…an SSO music review

June 30, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Staying in familiar territory, but with more ear-challenges than the last APT Mater Series concert, the SSO loaded up its heavy artillery for a resoundingly satisfying performance last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.Although orchestral concerts do not follow operatic dictates, it is always pleasing to begin with an overture to settle the head. There are plenty to choose from, but you’d think drawing from the output of Dmitri Shostakovich would bring forth something atonal. Not so. His Festive Overture Op 96 may well have come from the previous century, beginning as it does with a ripping fanfare from the brass, followed by jaunty orchestral writing that invites cinegraphic scenery, unbidden, into the imagination.

Shiyeon Sung

Shiyeon Sung

Dmitri apparently tossed the overture off one afternoon in 1954 when the Bolshoi Theatre found that nobody had remembered to organise a striking opener for its 37th anniversary concert of the October Revolution.

The story goes that as the composer finished each page of the overture a courier grabbed it and rushed it off to the waiting publisher. With such haste required, Shostakovich probably didn’t have time to get too inventive with it, although the same tonal simplicity can be found in the delicious slow movement of his second piano concerto.

The SSO weighed into the overture with power-packed enthusiasm while providing a warm-up for Korean conductor, Shiyeon Sung.

One of a tiny number of women conductors on the international circuit, Sung took charge of the orchestra with precise direction and plenty of passion. By the time the concert was over I had ranked her one of the most effective guest conductors we’ve seen in a long time. Her skill was underlined by the orchestra’s reaction at the end of the night when she motioned for them to rise to receive applause but they remained seated to applaud her instead.

The overture done, it was time for the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with Russian born soloist, Vadim Gluzman. Although the Tchaikovsky is now one of the most popular violin concertos it had a difficult birth. Assisted in its creation by Tchaikovsky’s virtuoso violinist lover, Joseph Kotek, the two split up when Kotek refused to premier it. It was considered, at the time, just too difficult to play. With such a reputation, the concerto languished unperformed for three years until another virtuoso violinist, Adolph Brodsky, took up the cudgels and played it at a Vienna Philharmonic concert in 1881. Even then it got a bagging from the critics. But slowly, as more soloists took their brave pills and performed it, the concerto rose through the popularity ranks to where it is today.

Vadim Gluzman

Vadim Gluzman

That said, it still takes a mighty fiddler to conquer its technical difficulties, which is where Gluzman entered the fray at the Sydney Opera House – and nailed it.

More than simply playing notes, Gluzman won hearts with sensitive phrasing and a willingness to turn down the volume wick where a lesser performer might fear not being heard. Tall and imposing, Gluzman’s performance was enhanced by his stage presence and body movements as he totally immersed himself in the music. This was an exciting performance with a breathtaking first movement cadenza along with death-defying speed and accuracy in the third.

A huge orchestra then assembled for the sprawling, five movements of the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. The Opera House stage was crammed with players and instruments for one of the most important musical creations of the 19th Century. In addition to a full compliment of strings, there were two harps, two sets of timpani, church bells, four bassoons, four horns, three trombones and two tubas (known officially as ophicleides) one of which was played by a woman – which is unusual.

This massive collection of instruments made a monumental sound when they played together. The percussion alone was capable of starting an avalanche, to say nothing of the raw power of the brass and string basses or the screeching of the E flat clarinet.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The Symphony’s five movements are built around the story of (to use the composer’s program notes) “a young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with a vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of love-sick despair.” The dose doesn’t kill him but puts him into a stupor in which he has extraordinary visions. While Berlioz didn’t claim to be the young musician in question, he could relate to the passions of unrequited love from bitter personal experience.

Not only did Berlioz write 50 minutes of kaleidoscopic music, but he also supplied a program guide to be given to all future audiences so that they’d understand the story behind the music. The SSO concert program contained the guide – if somewhat tongue in cheek.

I was prepared for an enjoyable SSO concert but got far more than I expected. There were many surprises, all of them good.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Sydney Opera House June 29

Concert repeated July 1, 2 and 4


  • SHOSTAKOVICH Festive Overture
  • TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
  • BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique

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