The 50 Fanfares Project is a laudable initiative by Sydney Symphony Orchestra: over several years, new orchestral works by 50 Australian composers have been commissioned and are being premiered. For the latest SSO series of concerts, Catalogue of Sky by Cathy Milliken was performed for the first time. In her programme notes, the composer referred to many inspirations, as diverse as the Book of Psalms and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The composition began with tender whistling effects from percussion instruments, became tonal, even melodious in its multi-faceted orchestral soundscape and ended with a murmuring solo viola sound, perhaps resembling evaporating clouds.

Simone Young, Hilary Hahn and the Sydney Symphony
© Pierre Toussaint

After a prolonged absence of some 23 years, Hilary Hahn returned to the Sydney Opera House as the SSO’s first guest soloist in the recently rejuvenated Concert Hall. One of the American violinist’s many claims of excellence is her interpretation of the Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, Op.19 by Sergei Prokofiev (on YouTube, there are at least four different versions of her playing this work).

This live performance was every bit as accomplished as her recordings, with the additional bonus that Hahn’s practically faultless rendering also offered a most pleasing freshness and joy of spontaneity. Over the barely audible shimmer of string tremolo from the orchestra, her playing of the gentle Andantino first theme, making full use of the composer’s unusual instruction of sognando (dreamlike), felt as simple as it was guileless. In the later numerous character changes of the movement, be it the solo violin’s duets with the orchestra’s first flute, or the effortless pizzicato sounds, Hahn’s violin sound turned from gracious to robust at will. The middle Scherzo, movement’s sardonic sounds (their glissandi strongly reminiscent of the music of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) and ending harmonics provided powerful contrasts. Similarly to the ending of the first movement, the last minutes of the work returned to sublime sounds in the highest register of the solo instrument, where the accompanying musicians almost (but not quite) matched the soft farewell tone of Hahn’s glorious playing.

After a most intimate first encore of Bach’s Loure from the Violin Partita in E major, to the ecstatic delight of the many young audience members, on Saturday evening, Hahn returned to the stage one more time with TwoSet Violin, a hugely popular comedy duo of two Australian violinists, and then to perform a lovely Gavotte for three violins by Antonín Dvořák.

Both the orchestra and its Chief Conductor, Simone Young, were in fine form for the final work on the programme, the Symphony no. 6 in B minor, Op.74 by Tchaikovsky. The opening bassoon melody excelled with its warm tone and later, a number of lovely wood-wind solos made the performance memorable. The somewhat unsettled syncopations of the early Allegro non troppo were more than offset by the main Andante section’s heartfelt rubato and warm string sound, played teneramente, or tenderly, as the composer instructed.

The second movement’s waltz felt smooth and elegant to such an extent that one hardly noticed that (brilliantly!) it is written in an asymmetrical 5/4 time, rather than three beats in every bar. Young took brisk tempos and kept it tight with her elegant and persuasive gestures throughout the third movement, a proud and fierce march in all but its name. Being a Russian masterpiece, after so much triumphant joy, a tragic ending seems almost inevitable, and the final movement fulfils all such premonitions. Its pained lament ending on divided lower strings was followed by many seconds of utter silence from the impressed audience before the enthusiastic applause began.