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Review: The [Uncertain] Four Seasons at The Headland at Barangaroo Reserve (on Gadigal Land)

Review By Jerome Studdy

It’s seldom that you will find melodies more ubiquitous or recognisable than those of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’; so, what happens when you reimagine and rewrite them?

The [Uncertain] Four Seasons does just that, taking Vivaldi’s original work and re-sculpting it into a grim imagining of the four seasons in the year 2040. Virtuosic, cinematic, and gripping, members of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed the modern concerti with expected world-class craftsmanship.

The evening at The Headland (the first official performance at the venue) kicked off with a detailed and intimate short film welcoming the audience to Gadigal land. Festival speeches preceded an incredibly stirring speech by Damon Gameau. Introducing the work, Gameau made it abundantly clear to the audience that our world is in a terrifying state of climate crisis. Impassioned and important, Gameau’s words established a powerful atmosphere for the evening, the result of which was a remarkable meta-narrative that is not usually afforded to a chamber orchestra performance. As the audience sat on the headland, at the liberty of brisk wind and chill, there was no escaping the presence and power of Mother Nature herself.

From here, however, the compelling atmosphere plateaued. Whilst there was no denying the phenomenal talent of the performers onstage, the first concerto (La Primavera – “Spring”) took a while to settle. Some discrepancies in intonation and rhythmic ensemble threatened to unhinge what was already a complex modern score. It wasn’t until the familiar material of Vivaldi’s original (the wedding essential, this time in a grim minor harmonic sensibility) surfaced from the dissonant soundscape that the audience really found their bearings and felt settled in the performance. The large outdoor venue and reliance on amplification illustrated the often-thankless intuition that goes into performing chamber music; close ensemble, balanced intonation, group tempo, and ensemble communication. Given the circumstances, the ensemble did an outstanding job at performing the work in a way that still felt authentic to its origins. Most notable was the third movement of La Primavera; gorgeously haunting yet uplifting.

The remainder of the piece was grim. Though the music was impressive; harrowing and frightening texture and harmonic choices, outstanding composition and performance of blistering phrases, and passionate performance, the entire thing was without light or reprieve. Gameau’s introductory speech spoke of hope, but this was seldom found in the music, which soldiered through bleak atmosphere to a grinding halt at the end of the final movement. Whilst it may have been the intention to create something so relentlessly frightening, it meant that the work as a whole lacked pace and a sustainable architecture. When composing something derived from a well-known work, it is not enough to rely on the original to do the heavy lifting of holding together the new work. The new work must function on its own. Listening to The [Uncertain] Four Seasons caused an immense craving for the original, not only for consonance and reprieve, but to understand the intelligence and motif material that underpinned the reimagining. It also flirted the question of whether, should the original and reimagined works be performed alongside one another, the two would be more compelling through their proximity and juxtaposition.

Ultimately, the new work would flourish with more autonomy. In a sense, the apple could fall much farther from the tree. Moments begged for more playfulness, or manipulation of more than just texture and harmony. Style, rhythms, more diverse emotion, and even structure could have been considered to elevate the new work. Is it essential that the new work follow the pattern of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter? Or, if the seasons are to be so uncertain, what musical journey could the audience be taken on that tumbles through autumn, is reborn in spring, dies, freezes, and cracks in winter, only to hurtle to a fiery death in summer?

Photos Supplied by Syd Fest


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