For the second of his two concerts conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit presented a program consisting of highly contrasting works by Stravinsky and Mendelssohn, including Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, celebrating the 100th anniversary of work’s first performance in 1913.

Arabella Steinbacher © Robert Vano
Arabella Steinbacher
© Robert Vano

The first work of the evening was Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, a symphonic poem, taking as its inspiration the tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The piece began its life as an opera in 1908, but Diaghilev’s commission for The Firebird interrupted Stravinsky’s work and the composer did not return to it until 1913, then struggling to complete it with his style of composition, having significantly changed in the intervening five years. In 1916, Diaghilev proposed a ballet version and Stravinsky duly obliged by creating a symphonic poem of the music taken from Acts II and III of the opera. The work is full of orchestral colour, which was duly produced by the musicians of the SSO. The hustle and bustle of the Chinese court was colourfully replicated and there were some beautiful solos by individual members of the orchestra, most notably by the violin and flute. However, the highlight for me was a beautifully silky trumpet solo by SSO principal David Elton, representing the fisherman in Andersen’s tale.

In complete contrast to the visceral Rite of Spring which was to come in the second half of the concert, we were treated to one of the most lyrical violin concertos in the repertoire: the Mendelssohn, performed by guest artist Arabella Steinbacher. This concerto seemed ideally suited to her. There was a great fluidity to her playing and the beguiling melodies were allowed to sing out from her Stradivarius violin with ease. There was no fuss to her performance, instead it was remarkably simple, and all the better as a result. She produced such a clear, pure sound, that it allowed the music to speak in a direct, transparent way. The last movement contained the necessary lightness, allowing the scherzo-like motifs to be produced with equal amounts of both playfulness and elegance.

Elegance is certainly not a word you would use to describe Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which occupied the second half of the concert. With its emphasis on irregular rhythmic patterns, this work is earthy and primeval. It requires a huge orchestra, which includes eight horns and five trumpets. The orchestra combined to produce an absolutely thrilling sound. The jagged rhythms and dissonances were executed with such pure, raw energy, that the effect which the orchestra created was electric, terrifying and thrilling at the same time. The work is challenging for any orchestra, with the time signatures constantly changing and with Stravinsky even pushing the boundaries of musical notation. However, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra were totally at home with it and performed the work with great confidence, no doubt greatly aided by Charles Dutoit, who was totally calm, rhythmic and clear in his direction. He clearly had developed a great rapport with the players, who responded to his every gesture with total commitment and trust, making this a truly special performance. It was a great advert for live music and its ability to create sheer excitement.

The first performance of The Rite of Spring has gone down in musical folklore through the shouting of the audience in disgust during its performance. One hundred years on, the only noise produced by the audience in the Opera House was cheers and generous applause at its conclusion, clearly in total appreciation not only for the wonderful musicians on stage but also for what is surely one of the greatest compositions of the last century.

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