Richard Gill was an immensely popular conductor and musical educator and the Sydney Youth Orchestra dedicated the last concert in this year’s cycle to him. The concert had another dedicatee, namely Richard Strauss who is generally agreed to be an important link between 19th century romantic composers such as Liszt and Berlioz and 20th century avant-garde equivalents such as Stravinsky and Ravel.
The first work that we heard was a fulcrum for this turning point as the tone- poem was in itself innovative although the character it portrays, Don Juan is hardly original being the same sexual adventurer as Mozart’s Don Giovanni (though perhaps not quite living up to the latter’s 1003 conquests). The music is front on, very expressive, tracing from his effrontery to the destruction of lives that he causes and to his own eventual demise. The conductor, Alexander Briger has an impressive CV and led the orchestra energetically with the woodwind and brass sections including five horns prominent and playing difficult passages faultlessly. It was easy to see how Strauss’s light began to shine more brightly after this work was performed.
Cheryl Barker’s AO career has spanned three continents and she has sung as soprano in many famous roles in major centres. The composer’s wife, Pauline, was a successful soprano and her husband always loved this range of voice. The Four Last Songs were written separately and the title was only afforded posthumously by his publisher, making the idea that they represented the composer’s “farewell” apocryphal. Cheryl’s voice was beautifully controlled and fitting for the work. “Spring” was appropriately romantic and pastoral. “September” contained more revolutionary discords representing the death of Summer and here the trumpets and horns didn’t seem quite at home. “On going to sleep” features a violin solo by the leader Michael Michelson played with great sensitivity and balance with the singer and ends with mystery and querulousness. “In Sunset’s Glow” is said to represent his love for his lifetime partner with birdlike trills and portents of death. A superb cycle of songs sung with great accuracy of interpretation by the soloist.
In excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier, Cheryl was joined by Emma Pearson, soprano and Caroline Meng, mezzo both of whom have hit the world’s stage as well as performing prominently in Australia . Although Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) is jokingly famous in jumping a century by opening with a soprano and mezzo in bed together (The mezzo actually is acting the male part Octavian), it actually marked a regression from Strauss’s rebellious previous opera, Elektra, to a more conventional and popular style including the use of waltz-time more associated with his namesake, Johann. The arias sung here were fully representative of the lightness of the work and I particularly appreciated the lighter tone of the mezzo voice contrasted with the two sopranos.
Richard Gill would have been proud of this concert given at the Conservatorium by his protégés with huge contributions by the soloists. The conductor seemed to be able to imbue not only the orchestra but the soloists also with his unbounded energy and the sensitivity of the programming was also a factor in the wholesome applause that they received.