On 29th September 1973, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed an all-Wagner program in Sydney’s Opera House. This was the first concert ever heard in this most iconic of concert halls. Now celebrating its 80th anniversary season, the SSO recreated this concert from 39 years ago, which marked such an important milestone in the orchestra’s history – when the orchestra moved from Sydney’s Town Hall to take up residence in the newly constructed Sydney Opera House. It is hard to imagine Sydney without that glorious building adorning its harbour. Equally, it is hard to imagine the excitement which must have been present on that opening night. The Opera House was in celebratory mood again on Friday night, with the stage adorned with flowers and the audience being given special programs with silver covers, similar to those from the opening season in 1973. In the foyer videos were playing of that original concert.

Christine Brewer © Christian Steiner
Christine Brewer
© Christian Steiner

The performance on Friday showcased the best of Sydney Symphony concerts – a wonderfully rich, full sound; expressive, impassioned playing; and a first-class guest soloist. All this was conducted by Simone Young, currently General Manager and Music Director of the Hamburg State Opera and Music Director of the Philharmonic State Orchestra Hamburg. She is well known to Sydney audiences, having been Music Director of Opera Australia from 2001 to 2003. She is also much loved, judging from the enthusiastic reception she received from the Opera House audience. This is not surprising given her clear, authoritative direction and musical interpretations. Back in 1973, Sydney Symphony welcomed Birgit Nelson as the guest soprano. She was known to be the ‘foremost Brünnhilde of her day’. As if not wanting to be outdone by the concert in 1973, this year the SSO engaged Christine Brewer, who must surely be one of the best Wagnerian sopranos of today. Her vocal power, expressiveness and resonance were breathtaking.

The evening began with a performance of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. This was given an appropriately stately performance, raising the curtain on a wonderfully indulgent evening of Wagner. Christine Brewer then made her entrance to sing “Dich, teure Halle” from Act II of Tannhäuser. Her voice amply filled the concert hall of the Opera House with some of the richest, silkiest singing I have heard in a long time. Then we moved from pure vocal luxury to some of the most luxurious orchestral music in the entire repertoire with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. From the infamous chordal progression at the work’s outset, the orchestra successfully captured the extraordinary sense of unfulfilled longing and desire at the heart of this incredible music. There was some beautiful playing from the strings, who projected the long lines with great passion, allowing the audience to wallow unashamedly in this sensuous music.

If this was the showcase for the strings, the second half of the concert – extracts from Götterdämmerung – was very much about the brass section. It was an impressive sight to see the full SSO brass section seated at the back of the stage, which included Wagner tubas. The full brass entry in Siegfried’s Funeral March was one of the most powerful moments I have experienced in the Opera House, and possibly one of the most exciting orchestral sounds I have heard anywhere. Catherine Brewer was once again superb and the full sound of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene was simply thrilling and a very present reminder of why we should be celebrating the 80th anniversary of this wonderful orchestra.

****1