Fate and Festivals was the rather bold title given to the latest Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert at Sydney Opera House in an evening which provided a great showcase for the full orchestra, demonstrating their great virtuosity, versatility and sensitivity as an ensemble. With such a demanding program, it must have been somewhat daunting for the guest conductor, Canadian-born Charles Olivieri-Munroe. However, he conducted with flair, clearly wanting to impress on his Australian debut. The other guest for the evening was Korean pianist Joyce Yang, who performed Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with great aplomb.

Charles Olivieri-Munroe
Charles Olivieri-Munroe

The concert opened with Dvořák’s Othello overture, which comes from a set of three overtures. The work has clear references to Shakespeare’s play and it is easy to discern different music for different themes from the play, such as the jealousy motif and the climax of Desdemona’s murder. The orchestra effectively brought out the drama inherent in the work and it proved an effective curtain-raiser for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1, which formed the main part of the first half. The evening’s program unashamedly claimed that the concerto was “perhaps the reason you’re here tonight”. It is easy to see why this work enjoys such enduring popularity with its great, sweeping opening melody to the beautiful tenderness of the second movement and then the wild Cossack dance of the finale. The Sydney Symphony clearly reveled in performing this wonderful piece, especially with the stunning display provided by pianist Joyce Yang. For a woman of relatively small stature, she possessed both the physical power and the technical prowess which the piece requires. She produced a rich tone from the Steinway, allowing the melodies to really sing, and she negotiated the fiendish octave runs with apparent ease. For their part, the orchestra responded with equal measures of musicality and sensitivity. The flute solo at the beginning of the second movement was particularly beautiful.

The second half opened with a rarely performed Tchaikovsky gem, a work entitled Fatum or Fate. This piece is hardly ever performed on the concert platform and in fact tonight was the first time the Sydney Symphony Orchestra had ever performed it. Fate provides a theme rather than a narrative (and it is in fact a common theme in Tchaikovsky’s work). Tchaikovsky appears to have written the piece without any specific program in mind. The work contains many of the beloved hallmarks of Tchaikovsky’s writing – it is often lyrical, it has elements of the ballet, and is distinctly Russian. The Sydney Symphony characterized this work beautifully and although Tchaikovsky himself was unhappy with the work – he destroyed the full score – this piece was a revelation to me and I hope it becomes more widely known.

The evening concluded with a great orchestral showpiece in the form of Respighi’s Feste Romane. This piece requires an exceptionally large orchestra, including seven trumpeters (three of them off stage), nine percussionists, two pianists, a mandolin player and an organist. The overall sound in the Opera House Concert Hall was often cataclysmic in the tutti sections. In fact it was probably the loudest I have ever heard an orchestra play in the Opera House. There was certainly no holding back with the full brass section on particularly fine form, producing an absolutely thrilling sound. Principal horn player Ben Jacks had a particularly busy evening, and negotiated his solos with great style. This was a work which showcased the many different facets of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and, as already stated, it really demonstrated that this is an orchestra of great virtuosity, versatility and sensitivity in every section. No wonder then that the conductor went to great pains at the concert’s conclusion to single out several of the individual players for applause. This was a work which celebrates festivities, but in the case of the Sydney Symphony it celebrates too this wonderful orchestra.