Simone Young Conducts Mahler 2

SSO triumphs in a new acoustic
ABR Arts 22 July 2022

Simone Young Conducts Mahler 2

SSO triumphs in a new acoustic
ABR Arts 22 July 2022
A view of the Sydney Opera House's new Concert Hall on opening night of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Gala (photo credit: Daniel Boud)
A view of the Sydney Opera House's new Concert Hall on opening night of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Gala (photo credit: Daniel Boud)

At drinks following the first performance of this sold-out run of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, conductor Simone Young chatted to mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the latter’s hoarse voice alarming the two of them. ‘We need to call Debbie,’ Young told a colleague, wary of what the morrow would bring. ‘Right now!’

The Debbie concerned is mezzo Deborah Humble, whom Simone had conducted many times in Hamburg and who had cut her teeth on such dramatic jump-ins. The circumstances are always different, the routine pretty much the same: an archival video link of the production is pored over during the lunchtime flight, followed by half an hour with either conductor or stage manager in order that the curtain might rise on time. In this instance, Humble knew the symphony’s exquisite fourth movement, ‘Urlicht’ (what self-respecting mezzo doesn’t?), yet the long finale was another matter. That was Thursday morning’s task, while she waited to see if DeYoung got any better.

So, this SSO gala reopening of the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House was steeped in even more drama than a complete refurbishment and acoustic reimagining of the space would normally allow. And Humble did a beautiful job, as was evidenced by the expression on soprano Nicole Car’s face in the creamy ‘Urlicht’, Humble’s rubato carefully judged, her sound rich, her text beautifully placed, Young looking after her at every turn.

Yet there was so much else to admire in this movement: oboist Diana’s Doherty’s single-breath solo, which traces the voice in its magical phrase, ‘How I wish I were in heaven!’, before going on alone to show us just what that heaven might sound like. And concert master Harry Bennett’s awkward-key solo, which must breathe and turn on a dime despite the intransigent clarinet obligato on his back, its character so different from that of his barn-fiddle duo with flute in the third movement. This was all exemplary ensemble work, a reminder of how an extremely good orchestra remains a microcosm of the best possible society.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra during the Sydney Opera House's Concert Hall reopening performance (photo credit: Daniel Boud)Sydney Symphony Orchestra during the Sydney Opera House's Concert Hall reopening performance (photo credit: Daniel Boud)

And the evening really was all about best society. Could state government intervention atone for the sins inflicted on this mighty opera house when previous state government intervention had led to the architect, Jørn Utzon, walking off the project in 1966? The late architect Ken Woolley, who in 2010 published a compelling forensic dissection of the building based on archival documentation, decided that the acoustic compromises of the building were stitched into Utzon’s architectural plans, alas, long before the acrimonious split. (Woolley was motivated to undertake his analysis because of his dissatisfaction with the narrative that had emerged from the fiasco of philistine Australian engineers and politicians driving away the visionary, single-minded European architect.) Whether or not this is the case, it must be acknowledged that nothing quite prepares listeners (or conductors, for that matter) for the dispiriting first chord of the evening in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, our ears hastily recalibrating so we might get through it with some of our initial optimism intact.

Fortunately, there has been atonement aplenty. In her speech following the performance, Young said that they all had been ‘steeling ourselves for it just to be a bit better’, which is why in the acoustic tests in the previous weeks they couldn’t quite believe what they were hearing. The best analogy she could muster was for us to imagine an opulent room with every stick of furniture in it left exactly as it had been, but because the lighting was now completely new, everyone who entered the space would see it in a fundamentally different way.

And those fundamentals matter. This was an orchestra whose winds have traditionally played at least twice as loud as is polite just to cut through the acoustic morass, whose strings could never quite get across the footlights the myriad instrumental techniques at their disposal, settling instead for a more corporate sound. These are players used to watching when they can’t hear and guessing when they can’t see. How revolutionary to have an acoustic where a violinist can hear a flute player breathe in and phrase or attack accordingly?

Mahler is the perfect test case for a new hall. After Hector Berlioz, composers littered their scores with ever more specific technical instructions, happy as well to let their imagination roam offstage when the need arose. How brilliant to hear with such clarity, then, the amazing string colours in the second movement: the subtle glissandi, perfectly judged (not too early, not too late); the long, bouncy spiccato passages, all perfectly in sync; the different muted sounds, breathy or hushed; the sheer grunt of thirty or so violins playing on their G strings; the long cello phrases once the bows had all stopped bouncing, so beautifully shaped by Catherine Hewgill. How strangely hypnotic, then, to hear the offbeat broom taps of the rute in the third movement, forming a nice sonic connection to the Aboriginal rain sticks in William Barton’s lovely opener, which featured the Sydney Children’s Choir and Gondwana Indigenous Children’s Choir under Lyn Williams. And how thrilling to hear the offstage brass at the beginning of the finale, a mad hunt interrupted by the most perfect imaginable union of flute and piccolo. Or the onstage horns in the same movement, ‘mit aufgehobenen Schalltrichter’ (bells up), the triangle player directly behind them grinning like a loon.

Berlioz memorably mocked the traditions and excesses of French grand opera – the choruses of nuns and parades of devils, the stinking thuribles and glowing monstrances – though he retained some of the dramatic conventions in his own works. So too Mahler, whose idea of symphonic scale was monumental almost from the start. ‘Hier folgt eine Pause von mindestens 5 Minuten’, Mahler specifies in the score at the end of the first movement (which might be translated on this occasion as, ‘Conductor to yak with concert master, who has also jumped in recently because of Covid, to praise his playing and direction’). Mahler was mindful of the need to breathe and collect thoughts before continuing the journey, conscious of the large mountain on the near horizon. Yet before then – before the offstage skirmishes and Mahlerian grandeur – is some of the most intimate chamber music imaginable, a tenderness connecting players, all the more precious and fragile for the knowledge that it will be blasted away in the final minutes of the symphony. These, more than any other moments, were when the hall breathed with the players. The audience too.

That large mountain was scaled in the company of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, doing their director Brett Weymark proud. They ranged from perfectly articulated forest whispers to the defiant mix of prayer and assertion that ends the piece: ‘The blows you have struck will carry you to God!’ And the existential tussle that occurs between soprano and mezzo in this movement – so much less sickly than a similar dialogue in Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius – was exquisite, Car and Humble forming a terrific timbral pairing.

And so a great orchestra has a hall and conductor to match (or as the SSO Chairman said, a ‘world-class’ venue, orchestra, conductor, acoustic, skirting around the fact that the world has so many different classes of concert hall). After so long, after so many tribulations and so much investment, it must be tempting to sit back and just enjoy the trip. Yet when Esa-Pekka Salonen became Music Director of the LA Philharmonic in 1992 – moving into the astonishing Disney Hall eleven years later – he redefined the role of the orchestra and its relationship with audiences, players, composers, philanthropists, and patrons. He made it a microcosm of the best society.

Simone Young, Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (photo credit: Jay Patel)Simone Young, Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (photo credit: Jay Patel)

It would seem more important than ever to do a similar thing here; such wholescale opportunities are elusive, after all. Moreover, in the speeches before and after the gala and in the articles written about the refurbishment (the word doesn’t do the results justice) and the structural changes to the hall’s surroundings, there has been much mention of the need for a hall that can support the many visiting acts whose one ambition is to play at the Sydney Opera House. Theirs is a valiant and understandable ambition, yet in most instances this new, crystalline acoustic will mean very little to those operating the sound desks and the imported rigging, or indeed those playing within it.

It was good to hear the Opera House’s Louise Herron talk about the importance of launching this new hall with the SSO, and of Young talking about how they had all now embarked on a journey together, its destination unclear but exciting. (And Young is a great exponent of contemporary composers; will audiences and composer here come along for the journey, as they have in LA, should she take this entrancing byway?) Yet it is historically and culturally vital that this orchestra be allowed to develop its relationship with the hall and with those who come to experience its acoustic transformation. In the space of a few weeks, it is already changing the way it plays; dare to imagine where this journey might take us all!

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simone Young, will be performing William Barton’s Of the Earth and Mahler’s Symphony No.2, Resurrection at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, from Friday, 22 July to Sunday, 24 July 2022. Performance attended: 21 July.

Comment (1)

  • "These are players used to watching when they can’t hear". Orchestral players who actually show a conductor enough respect to watch instead of listening? In Australia? It will surely never catch on outside of Sydney.
    Posted by Clive Conway
    24 July 2022

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