SOH Concert Hall – A world class home for a world class orchestra

by | Jul 21, 2022 | Ambassador thoughts, Choirs, Composer, Music Directors & Conductors, Orchestras

Sydney Symphony Orchestra | Simone Young conducts Mahler 2

July  20, 2022, Sydney Opera House

Oh, how we have missed you so in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall SSO!

From the point of view of a regular SSO concert-goer, on the surface not much has changed in the Concert Hall, the old white acoustic donuts hanging above the orchestra have been replaced by pretty magenta petals, and the new diffusive wall panelling is hardly noticeable under the wash of modern lighting, until you get up close, then you just want to stroke the beautiful curvaceous texture of the smooth dark wood, it is truly stunning. But when the music begins it’s very obvious, very quickly, that German acoustic engineers Müller BBM have actually transformed the acoustic properties of our favourite concert hall, from what used to be a somewhat distant sound to one that brings the audience closer to the players for a more immediate experience of the complexities of orchestral music. What better work then, than Mahler’s Symphony No.2 in C minor (the ‘Resurrection’ symphony) to showcase the new world class, and soon to be world famous I’m sure, acoustic. Sydney Symphony Orchestra, for their first concert with incoming Chief Conductor Simone Young AM, combined a massive orchestra with a 200 strong choir for this work that has a huge variety of colour, tone and dynamic quality. Perfect!

But let’s roll back a step – while Mahler 2 was certainly the draw card for most of the audience, the opening of the concert was itself a momentous and moving occasion. Australian Indigenous composer and musician William Barton’s Of the Earth, one of the SSO’s fifty fanfares commissions, combines a choir singing a Welcome to Country with soloists and orchestra, the deep symbology of this work was exquisite. It incorporates inspiration from Barton’s own lived experience and his travels into Mahler’s Austria and features percussion instruments made from the recycled timbers of the refurbished Opera House stage plus others made by indigenous and First Nations instrument makers, combined with those wrought by western luthiers. With his work Barton acknowledges the importance of connection and of ceremony, and this evening, the first concert in the refurbished Concert Hall, was certainly a ceremonious occasion. Barton describes his work as, “a visible statement of hope, as the clapsticks sound out each person knows they are holding a part of the country, a part of the old and a new spirit of now.” Singers from the Sydney Children’s Choir and Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir entered the stage part way through the piece like a river flowing from distant sources to connect as one voice wth the Sydney Philharmonia Choir singers and the orchestra, a beautiful visual spectacle symbolising, to my mind, our connection through music. All through the work there was a pulsing heartbeat of the earth from the low strings and bass drum and timpani, it was both a grand and sweeping yet deeply personal work. Thank you William Barton.

And then the Mahler, well what can one say except ‘they nailed it!’. Simone Young’s fluid and generous conducting style is a joy and Harry Bennetts as Concert Master is eager, animated and genuinely engaged with the music. Together they led a group of Australia’s finest musicians in a triumphant concert from the opening dramatic strings to, well let’s be honest, the final dramatic strings…

I was grateful for the always excellent, and free, program notes, thank you SSO, this is so important for people like myself, who love orchestral music but do not have a formal music education. I always learn so much from attending an SSO concert. See the full program notes here.

My highlights were many but included the orchestral interpretation in the epic first movement, Allegro maestoso, of Mahler’s comment ‘You are battered to the earth with clubs and lifted to the heights on angels wings’ – such variety of mood, from crashing percussion to simply luscious strings. In the second movement the brief flute and violin solo stood out for me, and in the third, Frank Celata’s clarinet solo was worth noting, also in the final movement flautist Joshua Batty’s ‘Bird of Death’ rang out clear and true. A special mention goes to the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for their perfectly timed ‘stand’ in the final movement and the off book delivery. The new Opera House acoustic captured their soft entries beautifully and they produced a well blended and articulate sound providing a perfect platform of support for the vocal prowess of soloists Nicole Car and Michelle DeYoung.

One thing I really enjoyed about this performance is how it used the whole of the Concert Hall to evoke an almost visceral response to the music, the use off stage instruments was sublime, and while this was Mahler’s intention, and scored as such, the brass and timpani were placed around the hall in a manner that transported the listener into the midst of some faraway world with the sounds of a macabre battlefield all around them. A truly remarkable result for their first outing into this new acoustic, I am so looking forward to hearing more of SSO, finally ensconced in the first class home they truly deserve.

Photo credit: Daniel Boud

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