The Opera House bares all with Mahler: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

July 21, 2022 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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There was more than music to celebrate the return of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to the Sydney Opera House concert hall last night.

The newly-furbished Concert Hall     Photo: Daniel Boud

There was sound. After two and a half years of refurbishment, it was time to replace the sound of hammers and saws with violins and horns. And what better way than to perform Mahler’s second symphony in C minor, The Resurrection. It filled the stage and choir stalls plus a few stairs outside – with musicians. They covered almost every orchestral sound possible. The question was whether they would sound better than they did three years ago beneath the transparent doughnuts. From my perspective, they did – by a substantial margin. The overhead puce petals, the tiered players’ platforms and the carved ripples on the box walls combined to faithfully project a rich sound, from pppp to ffff. Bravo to the acoustic designers and engineers.

The curtain raiser was Of the Earth, William Barton’s contribution to the Fifty Fanfares Commission. Barton is probably best known as a leading indigenous didgeridoo player, but he has also made his mark in classical and theatre composition. I was expecting a work for didgeridoo and small orchestra, but Barton went in the other direction by employing Mahler’s assembled orchestral and vocal forces to produce a quality piece that would have been applauded by Peter Sculthorpe for its evocation of Australia, including Aboriginal clapsticks.

Photo: Daniel Boud

On to Mahler, whose second symphony called for a massive orchestra, including two sets of timpani, two triangles, two tam tams (not biscuits, but giant gongs), bells and glockenspiel. There were many additional winds (borrowed from the Australian Opera orchestra, I heard) and Gustav even gave the organ a run – but not the concert hall giant which was under repair after somebody put their foot through it during the refurbishment. The string chairs were all filled, including eight bull fiddles, several tuned with a low C string. All this instrumental power was joined by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and two female solo singers. And as if that wasn’t enough, the fourth movement assembled a presumably shivering ensemble playing briefly on the outside staircase to create a distant, unworldly sound.

Mahler took six years to write his second symphony. He wrote the first movement in 1888, intending it to be a symphonic poem but it sat around unpublished until 1893 when he decided it would make an ideal first movement of symphony – which he completed 1894. It was premiered in 1895 and became immensely popular during Mahler’s lifetime.

After its completion, Mahler assigned a narrative program to the symphony which he later withdrew, but the cat was out of the bag, so that audiences could forever share what was in Gustav’s mind as inspiration for his second symphony. The first movement questions life after death contemplated during a funeral. The second remembers the good times enjoyed by the deceased but is then blunted by the third movement which portrays life as pointless. The fourth hints at a release from the burdens of life while the fifth turns to a passionate renewal, soaringly expressed as resurrection. This is where the musicians prime their breaches to fire off one of the greatest musical climaxes in the repertoire.

Although this is a five-movement symphony, Gustav thought his audience needed a short furlow to recover from the gut-wrenching first movement. Simone Young gave us a break of five minutes before remounting her podium to tiptoe in the lighter weight second movement. From that point, the three remaining movements were continuous.

This concert marked the beginning of Simone Young’s appointment as chief conductor of the SSO. Her reading of Mahler’s Second explains why. She was both disciplined and passionate as she took control of a battalion of players and brought off a performance that had the concert hall audience on its feet and cheering immediately the last bar had rung out.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Soprano Nicole Car and mezzo Michelle DeYoung both had fine voices but I question why Mahler needed vocal soloists in this symphony. They were more at home in Barton’s piece. Of greater interest was whether the new acoustics would allow vocal soloists to project above the orchestra. And yes, they did, even though there were few big notes for comparison.

This was a superb concert from many perspectives, with a standout performance by the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs prepared by Brett Weymark. At the beginning of the fifth movement this huge slab of people sang whisperingly softly – moving to tears stuff. And when they wound up the power in the fifth movement it was uplifting.

There is an odd side story to Mahler’s Second. Gilbert Kaplan, a wealthy American untrained music lover, became obsessed with the work. By intensive listening, he taught himself, with some professional help from a Charles Bonstein, to conduct it. He hired the New York Avery Fisher Hall in 1982 and, along with it, the American Symphony Orchestra and Westminster Symphonic Choir to debut himself publicly as a conductor. Although there were vastly differing opinions as to his talent, the self-appointing performance led him to conduct the symphony over 100 times around the world. He died in 2016, aged 75 – no doubt looking forward to resurrection.

SSO Sydney Opera House concert 20 July 2022


4 Responses to “The Opera House bares all with Mahler: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. ALBERT LANDA says:

    Dr. Graham White nails it. What a gross disappointment this whole concert was. The appointment of Simone Young to this position is a dreadful mistake.I don’t want to talk about the Barton piece.It was compositionally totally inept and laughably pretentious while at the same time meaningless. As for the Mahler.Simone Young should not be allowed any where near these gigantic works of profound philosophical and artistic importance.She simply does not have a clue.I felt the orchestra also knew that they were in the hands of a total fraud.I found it simply unbearable.She managed to reduce this towering work to a boring and vast misunderstanding.OMG!

  2. Dr. Graham White says:

    Well, I was not there but I linked the TV to a fine sound system. I found it all a bit scrappy and not very moving. SY looked under-dressed and needed a score as did the very ordinary soloists. Lots of noise, an OK choir. SY did not seem overwhelmed by the music. All very earthbound. I dug out my dvd performance with Bernstein and the London Symphony Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus,performed in Ely Cathedral in about 1973. It was very definitely not earthbound – a wonderfully, inspired performance with far superior orchestral playing and singing and, oddly, better recording. I would like to have heard the Stuart Challender performance. I suspect it would have been so much better.

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