The long since overdue refurbishment of the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House means that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has lost its home for the next two years. With inspired artistic planning, the orchestra has presented a whole range of new packages to its audience, including a series of performances called Concert Hour. These concerts start at 7pm and last no longer than one hour, inviting younger audiences to attend, as well as allowing the older generations to enjoy a comfortable dinner afterwards. The venue for most of the SSO concerts this year and next will be Sydney’s ornate Victorian style Town Hall with its majestic organ (the largest such instrument in the world when it was built in 1890) and, most importantly, excellent acoustics.

Pietari Inkinen
© Nguye Phuong

The Hall seats close to 2000 people and there were hardly any empty seats for the season’s first Concert Hour performance. Refreshingly, a large number of high school students attended this concert and the programme was well chosen to appeal to new audiences. The Act 1 prelude to Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg never fails to enchant with its grand C major fanfare, tuneful melodies and powerful, rousing ending. Unfortunately, in this performance the opening theme felt ponderously slow, instead of buoyantly flowing towards the delicate second subject. Wagner’s deft but dense polyphonic structure, used to the maximum in this work, can become thick and heavy if certain melodies are not brought out, supported harmonically by others in the background. Amazingly, a good musician has some discretion in choosing what melody should come to the fore and what should be played with less energy at various parts of the Prelude.

Finnish guest conductor Pietari Inkinen, Chief Conductor of three different orchestras on two continents, elegantly and with obvious ease took reign of the podium. He has conducted Wagner’s Ring cycle twice in Melbourne in the past and will make his Bayreuth Festival debut also with The Ring this year. Why then, with such a pedigree, did he make no visible effort to refine dynamics, balance between sections, tempo changes or phrasing? His right hand attended to beating time, while the fingers on his left hand appeared to be in constant motion, without, however, seeming to indicate anything in particular.

Matters changed somewhat with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Although today it is hard to believe the scandal that its 1913 premiere caused in Paris, it remains a phenomenally difficult and exhilarating piece of music. Its complex, rhythmic maze of, for example, different and asymmetrical, rapidly alternating patterns, as in the last movement Danse sacrale, are equally challenging for conductor and orchestra. Luckily, on this occasion, they seemed to give no cause for concern. The SSO is a superbly trained ensemble of experienced musicians and they were in fine form. Wagner sounded suitably stately and grandiose in their hands, just as Stravinsky’s music was refined and quirky.

Pietari’s gestures, however, appeared to demonstrate little change between indicating soft or loud, brooding or passionate music. He seldom used agogics, that powerful musical tool of emphasising an especially important moment with slowing down (or even speeding up) time temporarily. While conducting with grace, the conductor never quite took control of the performance and this caused some problems with ensemble. More importantly, Stravinsky’s hair-rising musical inventions, macabre rhythms and tortured accents became safe and benign, and predictability is not a feature one would normally identify with a performance of this magnificent work.