Two old friends and a stranger…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

August 24, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The SSO concert last night just kept getting better as it went from Mendelssohn to Mackey to Dvorak.

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

And even before it began, early birds had the pleasure of a northern foyer chat from conductor David Robertson and American composer Steven Mackey.

Robertson talks – punctuated by quiet humor – as elegantly as he conducts. Mackey is pretty good too, although when he tried to explain how he goes about composing, I became lost in the labyrinth. He was responsible for the middle work in the concert and demonstrated how far he’d progressed from being an electric guitarist in a rock band. He has an impressive understanding of what a fully stocked symphony orchestra can do – and adds a few embellishments of his own.

The opening work in the program was a favourite of mine, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) – Overture, Op.26. by Mendelssohn. For no other reason than hearing this music, a visit to the strange Scottish cave is on my bucket list – as it was on Mendelssohn’s in 1829 when he went to take a look at it in a bucking rowboat and, by all accounts, suffered for his enterprise by throwing up. However, this evocative overture was the result. David Robertson told us he could sense the scooped-out shape of the waves in the six-note motif that underpins the piece.

Maybe my love for the music raised my expectations too high, but the playing didn’t deliver the enchantment I was seeking, or maybe I was fearing the end, which would lead into 40 painful minutes of Mackey’s Australian premier piece. But I shouldn’t have worried. Good things lay ahead.

Steven Mackey

Steven Mackey calls his substantial work Mnemosyne’s Pool, based on a Greek myth in which bathers are rewarded by retaining beautiful memories. How much the myth influences the music is not clear, nor it is very important in the context of whether the sound is appealing or not.

The work comes in five movements, but parts three and four are played without a break, so you could be listening to a four-movement symphony, except this is music from another dimension.

Using a big orchestra (bull-fiddle count: eight) plus tuba, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, lots of woodwinds and a TNT loaded percussion, meant that Mackey had awesome power on tap. He didn’t often use it together, but rather relied on unusual combinations and techniques (like ripple plucking of the strings) to create fresh sounds.

At first hearing, I didn’t love all of it, but there were many passages of beauty, excitement and profound sadness, especially in the movement named In Memoriam A.H.S. The final movement seemed to call out all the forces for a major assault and the effect was both uplifting and unbelievable. Just as I thought we would be wiped out with a supernova Mackey took his foot off the gas and the piece faded quickly and gently into black.

The choice of this piece seems to indicate that David Robertson who, as SSO artistic director, has the major say in programming and is on a mission to broaden the musical tastes of Sydney audiences. I support him in this, although it is risky when he bites off a big chunk of concert time to serve up music that might be good education but unpalatable for the majority.

Anyway, enough of the challenges of the avant-garde and on to Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 in E minor Op.95 From the New World and ‘hello old friend’. Hard to believe, the SSO hadn’t given it an Opera House outing since 2013. The New World has often been voted the world’s most popular symphony – and that poses a problem for an orchestra to shine because there are so many competing renditions.

From the first hushed chords, this was an outstanding performance and some of the best playing I’ve heard from the SSO. Roberson conducted without a score, indicating that he could let himself go, and that seemed to communicate exuberance to the players. Yet it never went out of control. The passages were contained and precise, the pauses held long enough to be delightfully tantalizing and the climaxes volcanic. Of course, everybody wanted to be melted by the spiritual-inspired cor anglais solo in the second (largo) movement and Alexandre Oguey did not disappoint. There were also magical statements from the clarinets, flutes and oboes.

Although the thunderous applause at the end was partly for Dvorak, I think most of it was for a high point in the playing of this fine orchestra.

SSO – Sydney Opera House concert 22 August 2017


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