Tear drops and wrecking balls: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

April 22, 2021 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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While most of my reviews cover the SSO Masters Series (the substantial concerts that are sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent) every so often I am tugged by the heartstrings to an SSO Symphony Hour performance supported by Credit Suisse.

Benjamin Northey

These are typically shorter concerts starting at seven pm which, I suspect, is so the older patrons can get home for their Bonox before bed.

The love magnet that drew me to this one was the Sibelius second symphony. It sometimes intrudes into my thoughts and won’t go away until the last note of that soul-raising finale.

But first was another 50 Fanfares Commission work from an Australian composer. Thus far, although early in the project, there have been some splendid music. I’m still waiting to get indignant over a stinker, but nothing has come up so far. This time we heard Gaudete Fanfare by Maria Grenfell. Born in Malaysia in 1969, she was educated in New Zealand and is currently associate professor at the University of Tasmania teaching composition and musical theory. Like many of the lesser-known Fanfares composers, she has had quite a number of her works performed.

Gaudete Fanfare was more fanfare-like than any we’ve heard so far. It used just 11 members of the SSO brass section with a lively question and answer opening followed by some dramatic combinations. While it was brief and enjoyable, it doesn’t threaten the leaders in my personal preference stakes.

This was followed by On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter, a German-born and British educated composer and piano performer who is a genre jumper between film, stage, opera, ballet and classical postminimalism. Before you ask ‘who’s Max Richter?’ you should know that he has notched up more than a million album sales and a billion streams on the internet.

There’s a lot to be said for an occasional dose of minimalism in today’s world of clanking and clashing. In this piece, Richter’s work engaged only the strings of the orchestra. It was contemplative, harmonically conventional and overwhelmingly sad. Also, strangely familiar. I rummaged around in my memory and suddenly stopped at the film music for Schlinder’s List composed by John Williams. I’m not for one moment suggesting plagiarism, but if one piece evokes tears so will the other, because they both engage the same emotions and they both employ a string solo to carry the main narrative. In this case, it was the viola which, compared to the recordings I’ve heard, was a bit watery. But that may be an unfair comparison, brought about by mixing when recording.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Thence to the main prize, Symphony No 2 by Jan Sibelius – who described it as ‘a confession of the soul’. Mrs Sibelius probably heard some other confessions too, concerning Jan’s philandering. He finished the second in 1902, hot on the heels of his best-known work, Finlandia, which became a rallying point for Finland’s independence. Many commentators see his second symphony as being from the same nationalistic mould.

The Sibelius second is among the most recorded and performed symphonies – which gives rise to conductor and orchestra comparisons rather than simply the music itself. Tempo is always an issue. Too slow and it feels like it is attached to a sea anchor; too fast and it loses its mountainous grandeur. This was the decision that Ballarat-born and Melbourne educated conductor, Benjamin Northey, had to make. His background includes a long stint as chief conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in New Zealand and he recently became the principal conductor in residence of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Before emerging as a conductor, Northey cut his teeth as a pit accompanist, composer, arranger and recording session musician. So he knows his way around instruments and the sounds they make.

But could he compete with Simon Rattle, Herbert Von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, just to name a few conductors who have performed and recorded the symphony? You bet he could – and so could the SSO. From the opening bars of the first movement, I knew Northey and the orchestra had nailed it. Like Baby Bear’s bed, it was just right – all the way through. I got the impression that the SSO loved playing it, from its tiniest timpani touches to its all-in blasts.

The finale is one of the most uplifting in all classical music. We waited for that modulation and the SSO delivered it grandly, swirling around in the restless minor key until, like an epiphany, it switched to the major for a triumphal homecoming.

SSO Sydney Town Hall concert 22 April 2021

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 www.frasersblography.com

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