At this concert we were treated to three completely different works which showcased the orchestra in a variety of styles and colours. From the lush strings of the Vaughan Williams, to the more ethereal sound world of Thomas Adès, through to what was termed as Tchaikovsky’s “Impassioned Masterpiece”, we were treated to a wide aural spectrum in a vastly contrasting program of works, but one in which the pieces seemed to complement each other in an intriguingly pleasing way. All of this was conducted by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s new Chief Conductor Designate, David Robertson. He was received enthusiastically by orchestra and public alike and already seemed very much at home in the Opera House Concert Hall.

David Robertson © Michael Tamarro
David Robertson
© Michael Tamarro

The evening started with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, a work written for three string ensembles of varying sizes. This was a great showcase for the wonderfully rich string section of the SSO, who created a rich and luminous sound which suited this music perfectly. The individual talent of the section leaders was also highlighted through their sensitively played solo passages.

The next work of the evening was for me the highlight of the concert. At only twenty minutes long, Thomas Adès’ Violin Concerto is a surprisingly accessible piece of modern music, especially in the way it was presented by soloist Anthony Marwood and David Robertson. The concerto was written for Marwood, and he and the conductor were keen to share their enthusiasm for the work by giving the audience a short presentation and demonstration before the complete performance. They highlighted a feature of each of the three movements for us to listen out for: the oscillating broken chords of the first movement; the Bach-like chaconne features of the second movement; and the theme played by the solo violin and piccolo in the final movement at differing speeds. This presentation was an excellent idea and helped us understand the music at a much deeper level. The concerto was superbly performed by soloist and orchestra alike. Anthony Marwood, playing on a 1736 Carlo Bergonzi violin, gave a flawless technical display. He produced a variety of tone colour, including a wonderfully singing sound, which helped bring out the intensely lyrical features of the piece. The orchestra too produced a virtuosic display, perfectly matched to Marwood and this music.

The second half of the concert was devoted entirely to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. The opening of the symphony was atmospherically managed. When the famous melody emerged, it was beautifully played by the clarinet, before once again we were immersed in the sound of the SSO’s lush string section. The ensuing Allegro non troppo section was attacked with a great sense of surprise and energy, and was extremely effective, despite one or two ensemble issues at the outset. This gave way to a gracefully lilting second movement, which was played with lyricism, the orchestra producing great waves of sound. The heroic third movement was performed once again with energy and passion as we were treated to the orchestra’s hugely exciting full sound. The brass section in particular was on fire, producing a really vibrant sound, which cut through the full orchestra with great precision. The ”tragedy“ of this symphony, however, is that the work does not conclude with the triumphant end of the third movement, but instead ends with a powerfully lamenting Adagio.

This tragedy was in some ways effectively highlighted last night when many sections of the audience burst into spontaneous applause and loud cheers after the third movement, believing it to be the end, unaware that the “story” of the symphony does not end on an emotional high, that they are going to be deprived of these feelings of joy at the work’s conclusion, and instead will be sent home with the lonely, sorrowful, joyless tones of the final movement ringing in their heads. This was played by the orchestra with a haunting character infused with despair, with the final diminuendo by the double basses particularly effective as they finally settled on the dark key of B minor, bringing to a close a wonderfully contrasting aural feast at the Opera House.