It was good news that Vladimir Ashkenazy renewed his contract as artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra through 2013. 2012 will be his fourth season with the SSO and the orchestra's 80th anniversary. The Maestro will spend four months in Sydney conducting the orchestra himself in the summers at either end of the year, opening in February with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and ending in December with a concert performance of Tchaikovsky's opera Queen of Spades. In his Mahler cycle especially, ending this year, Ashkenazy has shown how he is as excellent an interpreter of symphonies as of piano music, with an attention to detail and rapport with the musicians which brings out their best and an approach to the music which is genuine and strongly felt yet restrained, coming from a deep respect for and empathy with the composer. As a master pianist, he has a natural talent for choosing soloists — especially pianists — not least including 2011 invitees and collaborators Jean Efflam-Bavouzet and Stephen Osborne. As a complement to his good judgement, the Sydney Symphony's expansion into organizer of international soloists' recitals was an excellent idea, giving us concert goers a chance to hear the soloists on their own, after their concerti with Ashkenazy. These recitals brought some wonderful and seldom heard music to Sydney in 2011, though there is some repetition in 2012's programs of certain pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt.
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Richard Strauss once wondered about Mahler, to his face I believe, 'Why don't you write an opera? You could write such a good opera since you've put on so many at the Wiener Staatsoper.' He didn't understand and Mahler got pretty angry. In a way Mahler's symphonies are operas without singers, a sort of total art, in a subjective sense — if that term doesn't require total sensory stimulation — with vivid use of color and articulate deep expression. The level of abstraction attained by giving up words and human voices enabled him to express more faithfully what really gripped him. The Ninth, like all good symphonies, even more so for Mahler's but especially in his Ninth, it is a multitude of contents, often all at the same time — ambiguity and paradox seem easily expressed, even refined in Mahler. Vladimir Ashkenazy's and each of the instrumentalists' attention and care for each melody, theme, chord and layer in the music make this so clear even as the complexity of the music seems to nourish them; they generously create something fascinating and consoling to listen to — in fact partly because of its complexity it sticks with the listener long afterward.
Oboist Diana Doherty led the first piece, the Mozart wind octet with a string bass, wood wind and horn players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. A fine group of musicians who did shine in recent large symphonic performances, especially Mahler's Sixth, it is nonetheless good they had the chance to play as a chamber group without a conductor. One might think the piece might be a little too intimate for the large symphonic hall, and it is occasional music composed for a specific room in a specific nobleman's palace, like many of Mozart's serenades, sinfoniettas, divertissements, cassations etc. Mozart in his letters often sounds nonchalant, though honestly so in a modest manner, when he describes composing such pieces, making a few florins on the side while traveling to a larger city or waiting for his next chance to write an opera. But he really put as much into them as a symphony and this octet is especially sublime. The musicians seemed to play it with a sense of occasion, since it did quite nicely fill the hall and being such danceable music, not even in just the minuet movements, the performance strongly evoked the ballroom, and a very tasteful one.
In a way it is pointless to try to write words on music like this, but here goes anyway. It doesn't really help to read glib selective quotations from even the composer describing the music, sometimes in a single word, "tragic," "fate," "Heldenmord" fail to do justice while missweighing one idea, like a greedy fruit grocer. The Mahlers deep and checkered feelings about his Sixth Symphony are clearer from this quotation from Alma Mahler's memoirs, even if it does sound ambiguous or contradictory at one level:
It can sometimes seem like a scalping to play an opera overture as a concert piece, but Maestro Oundjian's apparent delight in Berlioz' music overcame any such qualms. They played the piece as if it were self-contained with a closer-than-usual study and without the anticipation or apprehension of the visual elements of theatre. It can be nice to hear an overture without the distraction of a rising curtain. It also served nicely as a relatively lighter prelude to the Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The precise stops and timing of the silences were very satisfying (and provided an interesting test of the hall's acoustical decay time — the sound taking about 3 seconds to decay but fairly evenly across the pitches). The Sydney Symphony brought across the vivid orchestration as effortlessly as singing.
I have heard it lamented "O, if only Mozart had written 25 violin concertos in the 1780's and only 5 piano concertos." Notwithstanding the alternate universe where Mozart lived to 89 and wrote many of each, the D major concerto for piano and violin, as Philip Wilby reconstructed it in 1985, goes some way to consoling the lamenting violinist. Mozart began composing the fragment (which W. J. Turner in his 20th century biography, disappointed not to have more of it, called a "remarkably fine work") sometime during his month-long stay in Mannheim in 1778 on the way back to Salzburg from Paris. Whereas Mozart wrote the 5 violin concertos for himself to play, this concerto he intended for another violinist, Ignatz Franzl, probably intending to perform the piano part himself; he wrote to his father just before leaving Paris that he wanted to give up playing the violin. This was at a weighty juncture, or at least a phase change, in Mozart's life often implicitly or explicitly considered the fulcrum between "early Mozart" and "late Mozart." Indeed the double concerto shows some of the Mozartish profundity and ecstasy of the later piano concertos while still having much of the humor, play and levity of the young Mozart.
The buddy system. Last night’s Prom was as close to an all-smiles evening as one could hope for with rain pouring down all day. David Robertson, although known as a champion of contemporary music, programmed two easy pieces, the Barber Violin Concerto, which is about as challenging as a box of caramels (very delicious caramels) and the Sibelius Second Symphony, a sure-fire hit in Nordic-friendly Britain. There are so many stories of promising American conductors who falter in middle age (Robertson turned 52 last month) that I was eager to hear him a second time. The first was with the Boston Symphony some years ago. Before I register my impressions, however, there’s a spic-and-span back story to his career — apparently this man has left behind him a trail of good will wherever he goes. He looks fit and friendly, with flat gray hair and the long face of a Yankee banker sitting for a Copley portrait. Born and raised in Malibu — not an arduous beginning, one assumes — Robertson was educated at the Royal Academy of Music. This tie to London glided into becoming the chief guest conductor of the BBC Symphony, which he presided over last night with happy faces all around. Robertson even entered the thorny patch that is the Ensemble Intercomtemporain in Paris and was cheered on despite having no ties to its founder, the formidable Pierre Boulez. Robertson preferred to conduct John Adams instead, and he got away with it.