★★★★☆ Robertson and the SSO revel in all the fun of Stravinsky’s fair.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
August 17, 2016

There’s a line in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along where the cynical ‘give-‘em-a-tune-they-can-hum’ Broadway producer flops out the immortal line “I’ll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit”. His insinuation is that the Russian darling, then resident in America, was too clever by half, and lacking in memorable melody. Well, he should have had a listen to Petrushka, surely Stravinsky’s most hummable score, and one that blossoms not only with colour but also with the catchiest music the composer ever wrote. David Robertson’s pulse-quickening performance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra certainly caught the spirit of the piece, delivering all the fun of the fair, and a great deal more besides.

Getting off to a particularly ballsy start, it was clear from the outset that this would be a weighty, rhythmic reading – a real peasant affair with none of your mimsy-pimsy impressionistic waffle. His precise beat shifted from theme to theme as Stravinsky piles Pelion upon Ossa to perfectly convey the limited attention span of your average fairground crowd, the colourful percussion especially prominent. An audience comprised mostly of school kids caught Robertson’s infectious energy as his bounding form and broad grin made abundantly clear his evident enjoyment of the big tutti dances.

But it wasn’t all crash and splash. A keen ear for timbral detail and a willingness to give soloists their head ensured we were treated to a string of orchestral felicities – like the Charlatan’s flute cadenza (Janet Webb) – and the intimate second and third tableaux were given plenty of space to register Stravinsky’s unconventional instrumental combinations and the dramatic comings and goings of the three puppets. The Moor’s music in particular was specially tangy with superb trumpet (David Elton) for the Ballerina and an eloquent bassoon (Todd Gibson-Cornish).

Back to the chaos of the crowds once more, the joie de vivre of the sweeping strings created thrilling images of dancing coachmen and wet-nurses, while a superb tuba solo (Steve Rossé) conjured up the most lumbering of bears. As Paul Goodchild joined Elton in a laser-sharp duet, we were left transfixed with Petrushka’s mocking spectral laughter ringing in our ears.

Earlier in the evening, two new works had paved the way for the Stravinsky: a world premiere of an Australian work and a Chinese concerto only a couple of years old. Elliott Gyger’s Acquisition takes its cue from the original Russian title of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which apparently used to be The Acquisition of the Earth by Dancing. Carrying connotations of “rampant consumerism, black-market transactions, repossession of mortgaged property, hostile corporate takeovers, colonisation and military occupation”, it sounded like musical matters might be on the heavy side, but in fact it was a fascinating aural journey thanks to Gyger’s keen ear for orchestration.

Beginning with ethereal harps, violin pizzicati and fluttering woodwind, the work built inexorably to climactic brass fanfares with snarling trombones and drums whacking out a tattoo. Pealing cow bells lead into a second climax as the juggernaut moved forward with surging strings and squealing woodwind (I caught some Rite of Spring quotes in the clarinets at least, I reckon). Robertson’s energetic guidance and clear direction must have pleased the composer who took his bow to considerable applause.

Tan Dun’s double bass concerto, The Wolf, was commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, among others, and received its premiere in Hobart in 2014. It has since done the rounds worldwide and proved highly popular with its memorable blend of traditional Chinese themes (especially for the solo instrument) and Tan’s accessible filmic style in the main orchestra. The fine soloist was the SSO’s own Alex Henery in an attractive work with a sort of toe-tapping Chinese Wild West quality. Inspired by the dying culture of the Mongols, the sounds of galloping horses and running wolves were to the fore in the dynamic first and third movements, while the central Andante was a long, melodic song, beautifully rendered by Henery over warm strings and harps.

These early-start concerts are designed to accommodate as many young people as possible, and having attended a fair few now they are clearly helping to build the audiences of the future. To listen to these kids give the SSO soloists the kind of rapturous send off you’d think was reserved for Adele or Kanye West is in itself an inspiration.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs this programme on August 18 and 19


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