'Hero / Antihero' was how the Sydney Symphony Orchestra entitled their latest musical offering at Sydney Opera House. The title, of course, was referring to the anti-hero in Tchaikovsky's Voyevoda and the musical hero of Beethoven in his Eroica Symphony, which needs no introduction. However, 'Hero' might also have referred to solo cellist Alisa Weilerstein and guest conductor Osmo Vänskä. I would challenge anyone who claims to have seen a more thrilling display of cello virtuosity than that displayed by Weilsterstein in Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto. Vänskä's Beethoven on the other hand was authoritative, his enthusiasm for Beethoven's masterpiece brought to life by the on-form Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

This was all preceded by the little known The Voyevoda by Tchaikovsky, one of his late works, which tells the story of a provincial governor who returns home to find his wife and her former suitor together. His servant receives instructions to kill the lovers, but instead mistakenly kills his master. I would suggest that there is a good reason why this is one of Tchaikovsky's least known mature works. The première conducted by the composer went badly, prompting Tchaikovsky to exclaim 'Such rubbish should never have been written!' The work does showcase the orchestra well, allowing the Sydney Symphony to show off it wide array of colours to full effect, but there is no memorable melody for the listener to latch on to. Historically, the piece is interesting as it is the first orchestra work ever to feature the celeste, but all the same, it probably is not the best choice of work to open a concert.

Like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev was also highly critical of his own work; indeed tonight's work was re-written substantially twice before the composer settled on the title of Symphony-Concerto as performed this evening. The work was written for Rostropovich, who also advised Prokofiev in the piece's composition. The concerto was clearly written to showcase Rostropovich's extraordinary talent and certainly puts the cello and cellist through its paces. While I do not think that the piece is Prokofiev's finest work, it certainly contains many of the composer's hallmarks - sweeping melodies, delicately bare, icy instrumental textures, rhythmic momentum as well as the odd touch of humour. Alisa Weilerstein performed the solo part as if it had been written for her. She was totally absorbed in the music. In the lyrical sections she produced a beautifully rich, silky tone, while the frighteningly difficult virtuosic sections seemed to give her no trouble at all. In music of such technical complexity, the odd intonation slip can be forgiven and is even to be expected; however, no matter how hard I listened I could not pick up anything even slightly amiss. The orchestra responded to her musicianship by providing the perfect accompaniment. The strings seemed to be inspired by her enveloping tone; the woodwind played with a wonderfully dreamy lyricism, while the brass played with an insistent rhythmic energy.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven's Eroica symphony and allowed the other of the evening's 'heroes' to come into his own - the guest conductor, current music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä. With Beethoven he was clearly in his element and conducted with authority and a great joie-de-vivre. The orchestra clearly loved playing for him and responded to his every gesture, delighting in his enthusiasm and energy for the music. The performance was pure pleasure from start to finish, from the joyous first theme of the opening movement, through the intense funeral march of the second movement, the playfulness of the scherzo and the liberating feel of the finale. Osmo Vänskä has recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra. This is probably not a recording many people would possess, given the vast array of better-known Beethoven cycles in the discography, but I would suggest it might be well worth a listen. Vänskä certainly brought the 2011 Sydney Symphony Orchestra season to an heroic conclusion.