What does it take to play in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra? This year’s cohort of Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows are finding out, training with the orchestra’s musicians and embedding in the ensemble. But they’re not just honing their skills in the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall – the Fellows are also being sent out to perform chamber music in more intimate combinations in venues around Sydney.

Chamber music is a central part of the Fellowship experience, violist Roger Benedict, Artistic Director of the SSO Fellowship program, tells Limelight. “Through a deep immersion in chamber music, our Fellows learn how to hone the vital skills that will make them great orchestral players – skills of listening, leading, following, blending, communicating etc.,” he says. “The idea is that even an orchestra as big as the SSO functions as a large chamber ensemble.”

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, SSO FellowsSydney Symphony Orchestra String Fellows. Photo © Keith Saunders

One of the most important things the Fellows have been learning, according to several who spoke to Limelight, is preparation. “The SSO has a great culture of preparing your part to a high level before the first rehearsal,” says violin Fellow Tobias Aan. “This expected level of preparation, coupled with the extraordinary musicianship and flexibility of the orchestra as a whole, means that I have had to learn how to prepare orchestral parts to a higher level than I’ve had to in the past. The orchestra is so quick to adapt to subtleties shown by the conductor or section leaders, and there is no time to be stuck in your own part.”

Chamber music skills, however, are just as vital. “For me, the best part of the fellowship program is being thrown into the SSO trombone section, who have been playing together for a great many years,” explains trombone Fellow Amanda Tillett. “This means learning to listen and adapt very quickly, as well as developing a sense of intuition and flexibility as I try to blend with the players around me.”

SSO FellowsTrombone Fellow Amanda Tillett. Photo © Keith Saunders

In the program’s next chamber concert, Intimate Voices in Parramatta Riverside Theatres’ Lennox Theatre, the Fellows will perform works by Sibelius, Jolivet, Pärt and Nielsen. “I have three things in mind when planning the Fellow’s chamber programs,” explains Benedict. “Firstly, finding music that ensures that all the fellows are involved in each concert (and with string, wind, brass and percussion Fellows, I do need to do quite bit of detective work!). Secondly, selecting music that offers them appropriate individual and group challenges, and thirdly, making attractive, stimulating programs for our audiences (and ideally always with a strong underlying or unifying theme). So – happy fellows, happy audience, happy me!”

The concert opens with Sibelius’ Intimate Voices for string quartet, from which the concert takes its name. “In the concerts that we have done so far, we’ve done larger-scale chamber music – nine to ten players – so it will be nice to be able to do something a little more intimate,” says Aan.

SSO FellowTrumpet Fellow Jenna Smith. Photo © Keith Saunders

The middle of the program will see the Fellows perform Jolivet’s Heptade for trumpet and percussion as well as two work’s by Arvo Pärt – Pari Intervallo for clarinet, trombone and strings, and An den Wassern zu Babel…for trombone and chamber orchestra. “While I have some really beautiful Gregorian Chant style music to play by Arvo Pärt, I’m really looking forward to listening to the Jolivet duet for trumpet and percussion,” says Tillett.“Both Jenna  Smith and Sami Butler are good friends of mine and I’ve seen all the hard work going into this performance – including inventing new notation for some of the percussion part! It’s a crazy, very involved piece which I’m really excited to hear.”

“I’m really looking forward to working closely with Sami Butler, the percussion Fellow,” says trumpet Fellow Jenna Smith, who recently performed Alexander Arutunian’s Trumpet Concerto with The Metropolitan Orchestra. “We will be performing Heptade by Jolivet and it is by far the most difficult piece either of us has ever played. Often as percussion and brass players, there isn’t a lot for us to do in an orchestral setting but this change of pace is going to be a great challenge for us!”

SSO FellowsFlute Fellow Rachel Howie. Photo © Keith Saunders

Rounding out the program is Nielsen’s Wind Quintet. “I’m excited,” says flute Fellow Rachel Howie. “It’s a charming, folksy sort of piece, and I get to play it with a fantastic group of musicians.”

“Every cohort of Fellows is different, with different personalities, a different group dynamic,” Benedict says. “Through all the chamber music, they learn how to manage and balance those different personalities to ensure that in concert, they don’t sound like a group of brilliantly talented individuals but rather a cohesive ensemble that runs like a well-oiled machine.”

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra Fellows perform Intimate Voices at Lennox Theatre, Parramatta Riverside Theatres on April 29


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