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Sydney Festival: SSO Percussion and Strings at Speakers Corner

Reviewed by Priscilla Issa

A Sydney Festival concert brought together the talented percussion and strings musicians of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The evening showcased perfectly executed rhythmic synchronicity, technical mastery and high energy. It was a brilliant reminder of the proficiency of some of the musicians of the SSO. The percussionists and violinists, led by Timothy Constable and Harry Bennetts respectively, were eager to share the dynamism that is 20th and 21st Century music. A mix of new and ground-breaking original works of the modern era, this is music at its finest.

The concert opened with Constable’s composition, Last Waltz, a piece inspired by the Viennese Waltz. Instead of the signature triple time metre, the piece explored a range of rollicking and uninterrupted rhythms. The frequency of the changes in metre propelled the music toward an exhilarating finish. Constable introduced the work as “Tarzan-like”. The toms and bases were struck with vigour. “Tarzan-like” could not have been a more accurate description.

American composer, Steve Reich’s 2009 composition, Mallet Quartet, was a hark back to the minimalist sounds of the 1970s. The balance of wood and metal of the two vibraphones and two marimbas created a kind of lucid and ethereal feel. The tonal stagnancy and slowly shifting harmonic modulations do not downplay the difficulty of the work. In fact, the circular melodic lines highlight the tricky mixed metres. The second movement was a reprieve from the unresting propulsions of the other movements. The pianissimo bliss of the second marimba provided the quiet to balance the frequency of the high marimba part. The vibraphones were played with astounding rhythmic accuracy. It was clear that the instrumentalists had spent hours rehearsing. There was hardly a fault in sight.

Composer Holly Harrison’s premiere of Swoop, played by the SSO string players, infuses bluegrass with chaos, uneasiness and agitation. The staccato fragments, cello walking bass, the slurred notes of the violins, and resonant vibrato of the sultry violas, is, as Bennetts put it, a clever combination of “classical and grunge”. There were moments that were reminiscent of 1940s American film score music. This piece is set to become a key piece in the world of sophisticated, modern string works. A huge congratulations to Harrison on the creation of a highly entertaining work. Audiences look forward to her future compositions.

A personal favourite in the program was John Adams’ Shaker Loops. The 25-minute piece was mindboggling, to say the least. Adams was another powerhouse in 20th Century experimentalism. The instrumentalists did the characteristic “loop” justice. Circular reiterations of the violin section coincided beautifully with the embellishments (portamento) of the violas. Namely, the pronounced interval of a perfect fourth created a wonderful dialogue between the instruments. Also, the random interjections of the cellos balanced nicely against the languid melodies of the double bass. The ensemble’s clever handling of harmonic tension followed by subsequent release created a sense of mystery. The sparseness eventually culminated into a mash of sound so powerful that the audience found themselves holding their breaths. This piece is a visceral force in the collection of minimalist works. What an experience!

Sydney audiences have waited all too long for a return of the SSO from the damaging lockdown. A huge congratulations to all on such incredible technical and musical prowess!

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