When the Frenchman Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) arrived in America in 1915, he was overwhelmed by the urban energy of New York. In this brash new country he left his French ways behind, except for a Debussyan interest in sonority (although far from Debussy’s style or taste). Instead, in several orchestral works of which Amériqueswas the first, he channelled the power, chaos and shock factor of the modern world.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton MarsalisDavid Robertson conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Photo © Tim Skinner

Breaking new ground in his writing for brass and especially percussion, Varèse created orchestral textures that composers of film noir movie scores would appropriate decades later. The pile-driving rhythms and “blocks of sound” in Amériquesepitomise the Machine Age of the 1920s and 30s: it’s as if Varèse found a middle way between music (which his father forbade as a career) and engineering (which his father approved of). Leopold Stokowski conducted the work’s premiere in 1926, but the composer revised it two years later, and it was this revision we heard tonight. David Robertson is notably good...