As my biography states, I am a lover of many musical things, but particularly music from about 1200 to the late 1700s and music written yesterday. So when a new musical friend tells me he is going to start an orchestra that only plays romantic era symphonic works and will call themselves the Bruckner Orchestra Sydney, I put on my best supportive façade in the face of adversity. Was I rudely shocked.
Some of Sydney’s brightest young talent on a concert stage
The Bruckner Orchestra Sydney indeed brought together some of Sydney’s brightest young talent on a concert stage. The majority were current students or alumni of the Sydney Conservatorium or players from a number of other youth orchestras, but after only three rehearsals they sounded like they had been playing together for years. The only giveaway was the sheer joy and enthusiasm of a brand new ensemble that could be seen on every single face in the nearly 80 musicians on stage. It may have something to do with the focus and great respect for the much loved Max McBride — conductor and music educator extraordinaire.
One of the best string sections I have heard for a long time
The very appreciative and enthralled audience nearly filled the Verbrugghen Hall of the Sydney Conservatorium (not bad for a first performance of a new orchestra, though I imagine there were lot of supportive friends and family in the audience). To sit through an eighty-minute Romantic symphony is a hard slog, but harder for the young musicians to concentrate and maintain stamina. Those strings required a lot of tremolo playing! And those strings are one of the best string sections I have heard for a long time.
Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is not only long, terrifically hard to play but it also was cathedral-like in stature. There were moments that reminded me of the theme of Star Wars or Holst’s The Planets but there were many pizzicato moments that required a large string section to play in tune, in time and oh so delicately, a feat managed by this new orchestra. I felt despondent at times, and I can see why the work is often referred to as the ‘Tragic’, ‘Church of Faith’ or ‘Pizzicato’ Symphony and on reading more into Bruckner’s impetus for writing the piece it seems he was in a world of trouble and disillusionment. He was facing legal troubles, pay cuts, and inner turmoil and this piece appears to be a work of Sturm und Drang, but really reflects Bruckner trying to sort himself out internally. He had also just suffered the humiliation of the first performance of his Third Symphony, which he had to conduct himself at the last minute because of the untimely death of the conductor Johann von Herbeck. Bruckner was reputably not the best of conductors, and most of the Viennese audience had left straight after the performance and the orchestra members scurried off the stage leaving Bruckner alone on the podium.
Hence the often complex writing in the Fifth Symphony — Bruckner was trying to prove himself as a worthy composer in a pretty competitive market. There was only a number of colleagues by the name of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms to compete with. There is also a lot of Austrianness about this piece and there’s a catchy little Johann Strauss tune that kept repeating that nearly had me giggling at the ridiculousness of it. But then to hear the full brass and wind chorale moments and momentarily look up to see if there was someone playing the grand organ but realise it was just a magnificently in-tune ensemble made me smile and feel just a little patriotic.
This brave new ensemble under the umbrella of the also new The Musician Project is led by local musicians Daniel Dean (principal double bass) and Sam Torrens (orchestra manager), and guided by the remarkable Max McBride. Let’s hope they get me to another romantic music sometime soon.
Photo – Lucien Fischer
See it for yourself