★★★★★ Young and Bell create a brilliant synthesis between music and narrative.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
August 20, 2015

It is often with a sense of doom and gloom that new repertoire is greeted when first introduced to the music world. Violin concerti from Paganini to Tchaikovsky were pronounced unplayable: indeed, in the latter’s case, the preeminent violinist of the day had to suffer the ignominy of turning down the premiere despite being the dedicatee due to the concerto’s technical demands. Prokofiev’s music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet had an equally unpropitious birth, with six years passing between the conception of the ballet in 1934 and its Soviet premiere owing to its technical difficulty and quirky arrangement. Under the stewardship of Simone Young the Sydney Symphony demonstrated no such technical difficulty, commandingly navigating the demands of this work. Indeed, the concert exhibited two titans of the Australian arts landscape, with Young conducting a series of selections from the ballet interspersed with extracts from the play performed by members of the Bell Shakespeare chosen by that other Australian artistic treasure, John Bell. Interestingly, Bell threaded the music and textual fragments according to themes rather than chronology. The result was a brilliant synthesis between music and narrative, orchestration and acting.

The overarching theme of the story of literature’s most famous star-crossed lovers is impending tragedy and the futility of their love. Prokofiev’s tonal language is well suited to these themes, with its Straussian melodic lines undercut by chromatic moments and vertiginous rhythms. In the Balcony Scene of Act I, the soaring strings carried Romeo up towards his lover in a most delicate and lyrical manner; but Prokofiev (like Mahler before him in the opening of his First Symphony) reminds us, with the closest thing music gets to dramatic irony, that even the most pristine E string sounds become piercing when played high enough on the fingerboard.

The show-stopping numbers of the evening were Act I’s Dance of the Knights and the fight scene and subsequent avenging of Mercutio’s death in Act II. In the Dance, Young showed her true musicianship in the way she didn’t allow the heaviness of the double bass and cello sections to rein in the musical drive that was derived from the dotted rhythms in the strings. The electrifying fight scene between Tybalt and Mercutio was truly mesmerising, as the violins whizzed up and down the fingerboard, Young strutting but not fretting her hour upon the stage (literally: the concert was without interval and just over an hour), all the while balancing on her characteristic Louboutin stilettos, which could have easily doubled as makeshift swords in a duel.

There were also a number of other majestic selections, including a yearning portrayal of the young Juliet, a bittersweet introduction to Act III with seamless interactions between the brass and wind, and the innocence of Paris arriving to wake his bride accompanied by a suite of mandolins.

The concert finished with Juliet’s funeral, music that is fragmented and sparse, a poignant comment on the waste of life and love that we have witnessed. The actors also commented on the play’s cautionary tale: only Shakespeare could make such a pitiful scene sound so sweet.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Bell Shakespare presents two more performances of Romeo and Juliet on August 22 and 24.