Sydney Opera House,
The Sydney Symphony
September 18, 2019
Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor
Andreas Brantelid, cello
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Elgar – Cello Concerto
Elgar – Enigma Variations
Vladimir Ashkenazy is a beloved figure in Sydney, one immediately realizes, as he dashes onstage in a signature white turtleneck to lead the Sydney Symphony at the Opera House concert hall. You’d never guess this compact Conductor Laureate, with his full shock of white hair and healthy build is 82 years old. Subtract twenty and you might be closer to the truth. A phalanx of teenage girls in striped school uniforms immediately starts screaming and doesn’t let up. As the evening progresses, not entirely aware of when to burst into applause, they will several times bring the proceedings to a momentary halt born of green but great enthusiasm and delight. No musician, of course, genuinely minds that sort of excitement.
Concerts are always a lesson in sociology. This was my first exposure to an Australian audience, so I was doubly fascinated to be taking in not just Ashkenazy’s Anglocentric program (which we seldom encounter in America and frequently hunger for) and to experience the notorious Opera House acoustic, about which more in a moment. I was intrigued, as well, to see how Australians would interact with each other at an event of this kind.
The concert hall is laid out without a center aisle in the orchestra section, so people tend to stay in their seats, instead of rushing the stage the way one does in San Francisco or New York. Much of the upper tier is steeply raked, so I noticed a tendency to remain seated and clap and scream in place rather than stand and bellow the way we do. But shriek and explode with pleasure they certainly did. In London, by contrast, it takes some doing for concertgoers to abandon sitting on their hands and dare to make noise. Compared with the Aussies, who seem uninhibited like us, the British come across as a slow burn.
In the hall I noticed almost none of the men wearing a necktie, with the exception of teenagers in school uniforms. In this egalitarian society, putting on airs and formality are hard to distinguish from each other. I was the only person there in a three piece suit, surely too impressed with myself and something of a throwback. My reward was to be leered at by a lady of 75 and quizzically ignored by everybody else! The musicians, themselves, no longer appear in white tie and tails, which they still do even in New Age San Francisco (though some of our audience in summer can occasionally be noted wearing flipflops.) Barefoot will surely be next.
Vladimir Ashkenazy is not a demonstrative conductor. He tends to be a bit literal with a score, not frosty, just inclined to lay it out for you rather than seek heart-stopping subtleties. I was gratified to find, nonetheless, that he approached the timeless Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia with reverence for its ability to evoke nostalgia and contemplation. The quieter moments floated nicely in the hall, an acoustic deficient not of reverberation—but of clarity and volume without an edge.
The moment the music gets loud in the Opera House, it becomes harsh, bass shy and lacking texture, like an indifferent stereo system from the era in which it was built. No matter how powerfully the orchestra plays (and you could see the brass players nearly destroying their eustachian tubes from the effort) most of the sound goes straight up to the rafters. The hall will be renovated next season with acoustic improvements which should take care of the problem. Meanwhile, spiders on the ceiling may be the only creatures experiencing the true beauty of orchestral sound.
When Danish cellist Andreas Brantelid came onstage, a handsome blond figure in a white tunic shirt, there was, you guessed it, more screaming from the schoolgirls! Brantelid has a warm tone, an appealing manner, and delivered a remarkably fleet and effortless scherzo in the Elgar Concerto. It was a traditional reading overall, beautifully done. He followed it with Glazunov’s Chant du ménéstral, Op. 71 as an encore arranged for solo cello and string quartet comprising concertmaster Andrew Haveron, Principal Second Violin Marina Marsden, Principal Viola Tobias Breider and Principal Cello Catherine Hewgill. It was a gentle emollient choice. Brantelid doesn’t have a mane of hair to toss about and wild physical tendencies, as Jacqueline du Pré did, but he throws his head back and stamps his foot, so there was plenty of choreography to take in. Similarly, I have always found Ashkenazy amusing to watch on the podium. He is in no way eccentric, but he tends to clutch his chest with his left hand and beat time with the right held high over his head. I keep imagining him trying to hail a taxi without dropping the bottle of Christmas brandy.
Amusements, aside, Ashkenazy delivered one of the swifter readings that I’ve yet encountered of the Enigma Variations, kinetic in the way Pierre Monteux and Barbirolli used to conduct it. The Nimrod variation actually is scored with a rather fast metronome marking, and that’s exactly how Ashkenazy approached it. Instead of sounding nobly funereal (slower from conductors with each passing decade, it seems) the variation came across as warmly lilting. It was an exciting reading, or would have been if you had been that spider on the ceiling. Even the finale, with its barely audible organ contribution in the bass shy hall, did not manage to be what one would call “loud”. In San Francisco’s Davies Hall, the piece lifts you out of your seat.
In the event, though, this was a fine concert–live streamed to welcome Vladimir Ashkenazy into the Laureate fold. Both he and Andreas Brantelid emerged festooned with and nearly dwarfed by the largest floral bouquets I have ever seen delivered to performers. They were the size of cellos. Brantelid leaned over and donated his, appropriately, to the principal cello. Ashkenazy brandished his bouquet like a weapon to make his escape from the stage.
The schoolgirls screamed. The audience bellowed. The old lady peered at the overdressed critic. A good time was had by all.