A Cunning Blog

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Rites and rituals


Big night for the Sydney Symphony on Friday. I’d forgotten how massive the orchestra is for The Rite of Spring. Quintuple wind. Two tubas. Eight horns, with Wagner tubas in their back pockets… And that’s before we get to the percussion. It was an all-hands-on-deck night. And since everyone’s here, why not pair The Rite with another blockbuster, Steve Reich’s Desert Music? Sure. Just need some extra pianos, bring any marimbas you got and, oh yes, a choir. With mikes.

A night, then, of orchestral largesse, two grand edifices, side-by-side. Did it work? Or did all they drown each other out, like noise-cancelling headphones?

For me, the Reich was less successful than the Stravinsky. Perhaps it was the space, the amplification, or the distance I was from the stage, up in the cheap seats. It was certainly an impressive performance, mesmerising and fascinating by turn, but it didn’t have that visceral tug that I seek from this kind of wall of sound. The tempi felt slow, but lacking in space or pace. The ensemble was fuzzy and I couldn’t tell whether it was deliberate fuzzy or just fuzzy fuzzy. I felt like I was missing something. Missing the point. Missing the edge. Strange.

With the Stravinsky it all came back into sharp focus. Right from the start, with that extraordinary bassoon solo, played like a song, by principal Todd Gibson-Cornish, through the symphony of wind, and on into the rhythmic vortex, I enjoyed the constant changing of textures, like a mobile sculpture spinning in the breeze, transforming in a second into something quite other. Of course, I know the Rite well, so I was probably also enjoying the anticipation and recognition of those crazy riffs, waiting for that piccolo scream, for the psycho cello chords, the shiver of excitement as the ritual cranks into overdrive. The brass were magnificent, the wind soloists nailed it. And we got a one-man ballet from conductor David Robertson, out the front, pulling all the moves.

Observations from the back of the house: I still find watching percussionists endlessly fascinating, and up in the circle is the best place to see them. You see the bass drum player stand, pick up the stick with its big hairy pompom end, look up to the conductor, look back at their music. You can almost see them starting to breathe in synch with the music. Then the arm goes back and – bam. Perfect. Direct hit. All those bars to count and then one chance to get it right. They did.

Also, looking around at the audience up here at the back made me feel very old, and very good. Plenty of students, plenty of hipsters and yupsters and people having a great time. Lots of faces alive with excitement. This is not elite entertainment for the chardonnay set. This is art and it’s an important part of many people’s lives.

Well done, SSO. The fourteen-year-old who I was sitting next to is determined to come back for Firebird and Petrushka.


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