Upon entering the concert hall of Sydney Opera House, I was greeted by a plethora of percussion instruments positioned in all corners of the stage, along with multi-coloured ribbons, which were hanging down from the ceiling. They were in place for a performance of Toru Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call Time, for five percussionists and orchestra. However, before that, we were treated to Debussy’s much-loved Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. From the opening flute solo, beautifully played by the principal flautist Janet Webb, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra effectively created Debussy’s impressionistic, utterly beguiling sound world. Under guest conductor Robert Spano, the musicians played with great warmth and precision, the strings and harps in particular creating a rich and sensuous sound.

Robert Spano © Angela Morriss
Robert Spano
© Angela Morriss

The Debussy was a perfect piece of programming and led seamlessly into Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call Time. While there are obvious stylistic differences between the two composers, their soundworlds are remarkably similar. Both works have a great sense of timelessness and space. It is music which is able to wash over the listener and engulfs the audience in an almost therapeutic sound world. Each of the five percussionists in the Takemitsu is meant to ‘exist as part of an invisible whole, even while retaining his or her own individuality’. Therefore, they were positioned in different places throughout the orchestra. Each percussionist was distinguishable by the colour of their clothing. The five colours, white, blue, red, yellow and green all have separate meanings. The ribbons too were all these five different colours, and to the surprise of many people in the audience, they controlled some chimes, suspended high up in the auditorium. As well as being aurally compelling, the performance was often visually compelling, and appeared to be beautifully choreographed as the percussionists almost glided between their vast array of instruments. Particularly effective was the entrance of the soloists, who gradually appeared on stage alternately playing a pair of small chimes as they made their way to their places. It was a masterful performance by both percussionists and orchestra, who had the audience absolutely transfixed. Takemitsu himself has stated that ‘the ruling emotion of the work is one of prayer’. The musicians created this ethereal sound world perfectly in 35 minutes of pure bliss.

The second half of the concert consisted entirely of Aaron Copland’s Symphony no. 3. It has been described as ‘The Great American Symphony’ and is a great showpiece for orchestra, requiring large forces, including many percussion instruments, two harps, celeste and piano. The work also famously includes the Fanfare for the Common Man in the final movement. While the symphony is demanding for all sections of the orchestra, it exploits the brass section to particularly great effect. It is perfectly matched to the brass section of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, whose full sound brought the symphony to life and gave great excitement to the performance. The sound of the full orchestra, especially with the full Sydney Symphony brass section, was simply thrilling, and brought the evening to an exuberant close.