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Wagner Under the Sails

Tomas Boot

SYDNEY SYMPHONY: A stupendously special concert recreating the 1973 Sydney Opera House opening gala.
Wagner Under the Sails
One always is aware that an occasion is special if, upon entering the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, one happens to spy bunches of flowers bedecking the front of the platform. Indeed, the level of speciality increases in direct relation to the number of flowers that there are – the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra last year, for instance, had flowers not only on the front of the platform but large arrangements dotted around the rest of the Hall. This was not the case, however, for the Sydney Symphony’s latest concert, entitled Wagner Under the Sails, a recreation of the first official concert at the Sydney Opera House from way back in the day (when men were men and Concert Halls were Concert Halls) – only the platform-front was covered with floral protrusions. There was, however, something else to set the audience’s souls a-sparkling with the specialness of it all – namely, a silver program.

This critic takes an unashamed delight in programs, and the Sydney Symphony, while lacking the hard outer-cover of the programs given away for free at Australian Chamber Orchestra concerts, nevertheless provides a valuable and enjoyable service. Not too long, not too short, and most importantly, free, it is always a delight to open a Sydney Symphony program. (One can only wish that the theatre companies in Sydney would take heed of their musical counterparts.)

And for this very special concert came a very special program – normal on the inside, but with a startling new ‘cover concept’ by Yvonne Frindle, Publications Editor at the SSO. The original program books from the opening season of the SSO in 1973, the program tells us, ‘feature what are possibly the most eye-catching covers the orchestra has ever produced. These were made from perforated silver card. Very celebratory, very 70s!’ The program, therefore, features a ‘special wrap cover in silver foil’, which, instead of being perforated, is rather ‘embossed...with a chevron pattern inspired by the tiles on the Sydney Opera House’. Which is basically a longwinded way of saying that it’s shiny and bumpy, and that this critic heartily approves of it. As for the concert itself? As good as the program.

Simone Young was the conductor for the evening. Last seen in the Concert Hall conducting one of last year’s two Australian World Orchestra concerts, she is perhaps among one of the most graceful and fluid conductors to observe during a concert. One remembers, as a child, trying to perform a magic trick by holding a pen or pencil between the thumb and index fingers and, waving it up and down while moving the arm as well, making the pen appear to become bendy. Much the same effect applies to Young’s baton, which seems to wend its way through the air with impossible elasticity. The music, too, under her baton, was just as enchanting.

We began with the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (The Mastersingers), which was set to a near-perfect tempo that unfolded itself with the contained inertia of a grand Rubik’s cube. There was an exceptional balance that is quite often not seen in overtures, where many a conductor will aim for the big moments to the detriment of the less intense parts.

Soprano Christine Brewer came to the platform for the next piece, Elisabeth’s Greeting (‘Dich, teure Halle’) from Tannhauser. Brewer was playing the part of Birgit Nilsson (‘the greatest Brunnhilde of her age’) at the opening concert, and she was mesmerising from start to end. All of her range came to the ear from the back of the front section of the circle, and from the off one was entranced.

The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde finished the first half, with Young again showing a careful attention to the pace of the piece, keeping it rather slow but still managing to hold everything together in perfect balance, the musical tension constantly and unerringly maintained (except, perhaps, for a moment in a silent break, whereby one of the audience’s hearing aids began to chirp – but this is hardly the fault of the conductor, obviously).

After the interval came pieces exclusively from Gotterdammerung, with Young leading the orchestra through Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Funeral March before Brewer once more took to the stage to finish the night off with Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene. Once again the balance evident in the first half was on display here, especially as the Funeral March built to its devastating climax. Of Brewer as Brunnhilde there is very little to say, other than to mention that a better soprano the Concert Hall has not seen in the last year or so. A stupendously special concert.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Wagner Under the Sails
Sydney Symphony
Simone Young – conductor
Christine Brewer – soprano

Die Meistersinger: Prelude Tannhäuser: ‘Dich, teure Halle’
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
Götterdämmerung: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey
Siegfried’s Funeral March
Brünnhilde’s Immolation

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
August 9 – 11

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Tomas Boot is a 24-year-old writer from Sydney whose hobbies include eavesdropping on trains, complaining about his distinct lack of money, and devising preliminary plans for world domination. He also likes to attend live performances on occasion, and has previously written about such cultural excursions for Time Out Sydney.