Passion, complexity and adoration; these are the threads that run through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming performances, including pieces by some of the all-time great composers across several centuries. In the next three months, the orchestra will play music by Shostakovich and Britten (including the one-two punch of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 and the Chamber Symphony), Mozart’s searing Requiem, and two of Tchaikovsky’s biggest hits with the Symphony No 5 and the Piano Concerto No 1. Limelight sat down to chat with members of the SSO about what audiences can expect to hear at these performances.
While the SSO has been performing without COVID-19 restrictions for a little while now, it’s still a relief for the members of the orchestra to simply be playing live again. Concertmaster Andrew Haveron notes that, worldwide, their situation is a relatively rarity. “I am grateful every day for the fact that Sydney is one of the few almost-fully operating cities in the world right now. Many of my colleagues around the world are still not performing regularly, and have been in a cycle of lockdowns for almost 18 months. I try never to take my work for granted even in ‘normal’ times, but there is certainly a special atmosphere with every concert we give at the moment,” he says.
Concertmaster Andrew Haveron and Principal Horn Ben Jacks on Britten and Shostakovich
Sydney Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Andrew Haveron. Photograph © Jay Patel
Haveron is particularly excited about the orchestra’s Shostakovich performances, including the Symphony No 10 in July and the Chamber Symphony (an arrangement of the String Quartet No 10 by Rudolf Barshai) in August. While noting that the two works are rather different in mood, he says that Shostakovich’s musical language in both symphonies and string quartets is similar, and the composer’s demands can stretch the players. He acknowledges that “it is far harder, and more intense for four people (or even 20) to create the power of a full symphony orchestra” but he doesn’t shy away from attempting just that. He also points out that while Shostakovich’s symphonies are public statements (to be “delivered with drama, but also polish”), the quartets are “private monologues of [Shostakovich’s] innermost feelings”. In these commanding works, we see both the yin and yang of Shostakovich’s musical personality.
In each Shostakovich performance, his music is paired with that of fellow 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten. Contrasting each other, Shostakovich’s acerbic writing reflects against the sea-spray clarity of Britten’s aching works. The SSO will play the haunting Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes in July, and in August the Prelude and Fugue for 18 Solo Strings and also the remarkable masterwork written for Britten’s partner Peter Pears to sing – the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.
Sydney Symphony Orchestra Principal Horn Ben Jacks (left). Photograph © Jay Patel
With a horn part written for the virtuoso British player Dennis Brain, SSO Principal Horn Ben Jacks is ready for the challenge, commenting: “Britten clearly loved this combination – this and his Canticle III, Still Falls the Rain are examples of his clear enjoyment of the human voice and the tone qualities of the horn. His partner Peter Pears had a distinct timbre to his voice and luckily for us, British horn player Dennis Brain was at the peak of his powers [and] pushing the boundary of what was possible for the horn in a solo sense”.
Jacks also points out that the piece has some rather unusual features, such as the ear-tingling use of natural harmonics on the horn in both the opening and the conclusion of the piece. Here, the horn player must “play the harmonics as they come, not corrected, and the effect of the true fourth and sixth are suprising for most audiences” he says.
For Haveron and the rest of the string section, Britten’s writing demands “fairly extreme string playing techniques – on paper always very clear, with precise directions – and never for effect, but for powerful expressive reasons”. He describes the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings as a masterpiece, and crowns it as one of his very favourite works. Paired with Shostakovich’s works, these concerts will immerse the audience in the music of two 20th-century titans.
Associate Principal Trombone Scott Kinmont on Mozart
Sydney Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal Trombone Scott Kinmont (left). Photograph © Jay Patel
In August, the SSO will also perform Mozart’s final masterwork, the Requiem in D minor K. 626, with Chief Conductor Designate Simone Young. Under Young’s skilled leadership, this will be a rare opportunity to see the SSO bolstered by not only the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, but also by four superb soloists.
This work has special significance for Associate Principal Trombone Scott Kinmont. In the 18th and early-19th centuries, the trombone was generally not a usual member of the orchestra, but was reserved for sacred music, or at least music with religious connotations. The trombone appears in this guise at key points in several Mozart operas (including The Magic Flute), but here, in the Requiem, it has a particularly important role. Kinmont describes it in glowing terms by saying that “the Tuba Mirum from the Requiem remains one of the great moments in the repertoire for our instrument”. He points out that “the great thing about the Requiemis that there are thrilling declamatory chords to herald the first entry of the choir, wonderful soft chorales, solo moments like the Tuba Mirum, and some of the most virtuosic writing in the repertoire when doubling the choir. It’s a huge night out for the trombones!” For sheer impact, it’s hard to top this final Mozart masterwork.
SSO Horn section on Tchaikovsky
Sydney Symphony Orchestra horn section. Photograph courtesy of SSO
For the SSO horn section, it’s the upcoming pair of Tchaikovsky performances in September that they’re most looking forward to. Famously, the second movement of the Symphony No 5 features a stunningly beautiful melody for the horn, the sort of perfectly shaped tune that Tchaikovsky seemed to compose with such ease. The horn players are equally fundamental in Tchaikovsky’s stone-cold classic Piano Concerto No 1, to be performed with the sublime British virtuoso Stephen Hough as piano soloist. Here, Tchaikovsky’s use of the horn is equally memorable, providing the foundation for the thunderous opening bars of the piece before the piano takes over with one of the great melodies of all time.
The upcoming performances will also feature a world premiere performance of newly commissioned music as part of the SSO’s 50 Fanfares project. Impressively, of the 50 composers commissioned for the project, 25 are women – an important step for gender representation in the male-dominated world of contemporary classical music. In these performances across July, August and September, the SSO will be playing new music by Mary Finsterer, Bree van Reyk, Louisa Trewartha and Ella Macens. While it’s certainly not easy to perform such a large number of new pieces (each differing in style and form), it’s a challenge the SSO musicians are ready for. Commenting on the new works, Hearing these new pieces emerge from rehearsals is both encouraging and inspiring, says Haveron, who believes that it is “every artist’s duty to create new works for their art form – championing today’s fruits will benefit tomorrow’s music lover. I couldn’t be prouder of this demonstration of exactly that by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”
These concerts will certainly be ones to remember, fuelled by the passion of the members of the SSO for these pieces, both old and new. In the more intimate setting of the Sydney Town Hall, these performances are a chance to experience the raw power of an orchestra operating at the top of its game in repertoire that’s exhilarating, passionate and, most of all, tremendously moving.
Next year, there’s the return to the Sydney Opera House to look forward to, as well. As Haveron says, the support of audiences throughout 2020 and 2021 has meant a great deal to the players. Discussing the SSO’s return to the Opera House in 2022, he says that the audience’s enthusiasm will make it “all the more special, when we can hopefully return to the fullest size of orchestra and enjoy the refreshed acoustic. The refurbishment stretches from the basement to the ceiling, but I can’t wait – figuratively speaking – to blow the roof off!”
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming concerts at Sydney Town Hall and City Recital Hall include Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 on 14–17 July; Simone Young Conducts Mozart’s Requiem on 4–7 August; Britten & Shostakovich on 11–12 August, Sibelius & Tchaikovsky on 25–28 August; and Stephen Hough performs Tchaikovsky on 15–18 September