This concert, held in the Sydney Opera House, was billed "My Country, My Life" but certainly the cornerstone was Steve Mackey's Violin Concerto entitled Beautiful Passing referring to the peaceful death of his mother which he witnessed. The work, written seven years ago, featured huge contrasts with viciously tormented passages in the brass and percussion alternating with melodious though introspective interludes featuring the clarinets, with the soloist ever present. The cadenza which separates the two parts seemed exceptionally difficult but was also very impressive and relevant. The second part was less frenetic but still with a huge array of percussion, in particular Chinese blocks. A muted tuba and a late piano flourish added to the variety of effect. I found the work very approachable, although understanding the background to the music certainly helped, particularly with the sudden but sustained ending indicating extinction of life. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson coped fully with the huge challenges such a work poses. Anthony Marwood's brilliant playing was clearly in line with the nature of the concerto with which he is very familiar, though not enough for him to avoid the help of the score.

Anthony Marwood © Pia Johnson
Anthony Marwood
© Pia Johnson

The concert began with Dvořák's Seventh Symphony, a work with the greatest Slavonic character of any of his symphonies yet with a clear homage to Brahms' melodic string passages, demonstrating the close admiration Dvořák had for the German composer. Robertson handled the symphony particularly well. The first movement's lilting character and beautiful second subject were emphasised and the momentum maintained. 

The supremely peaceful second movement was handled with sensitivity, the horns blending unobtrusively with the strings in the middle passage. The furiant came across with suitable enthusiasm and the difficult rallentando between the trio and the return of the main theme was expertly expressed. The wind section in particular responded enthusiastically to the conductor's energetic friskiness in the finale.

On either side of the violin concerto were the first two symphonic poems from Smetana's Má vlast (My Country), between the composition of which, the composer's hearing rapidly worsened. Vysehrad (The High Castle) is deeply symbolic and evocative of the castle which stands above the River Vltava. The unusual double harp introduction, representing past splendour, was well-played and the subsequent interludes sympathetically interpreted. What better way to end than with the the hugely popular Vltava with catchy smaller interludes interrupting the prominent theme with its vacillation between the major and minor. It is the major variation which finally wins the day and this sums up the mood of the audience who left with the popular tune on their lips although most of the late night chat, or even argument, would have been about the concerto.