Reviews //

Mozart and the Violin

Alex Downie went to see the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and got beat up by an old lady.

Alex Downie went to see the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and got beat up by an old lady.

Isabelle Faust plays a 1704 Stradivarius violin nicknamed the Sleeping Beauty. The instrument earned its name because for many decades it lay dormant in a bank vault, unrecognised and still held in its original violin case.

Faust, who was the featured soloist in the SSO’s stunning Mozart and the Violin, brought the instrument to life. She played the concert’s repertoire—Mozart’s fourth Violin Concerto and Rondo in B flat, and Dvořák’s spirited Czech Suite—with vitality and enthusiasm.

Faust’s crystal tone and restrained vibrato were perfectly matched to the soaring melodies of the opening concerto’s first movement, which concluded with an impressively virtuosic cadenza.

The orchestra played without a conductor—instead, Faust directed them with expressive nods, glances and gestures. This creative decision arguably backfired in the first two movements, with the orchestra lagging behind the energetic Faust. At times, Faust’s vigour seemed misplaced—in particular, the work’s slower second movement lost some of its subtleties.


Midway through the  second movement, a middle aged lady sitting behind me struck my back, as hard as she could, with her concert program. I had been using my iPhone—dimmed, on silent, sequestered in my lap—to take notes on the concert. She loudly hissed that “this is VERY rude”, apparently unaware of the irony.

The orchestra continued to play, and the energy of the concerto’s triumphant third movement was arguably only enhanced by the sheer terror I felt any time I heard a program rustle behind me.

The highlight of the night was the playful Rondo, with a back-and-forth between soloist and first violins showcasing Faust’s extraordinary virtuosity and sparkling sound. This was a success that could not even be ruined by the woman to my left, who spent 15 minutes folding and unfolding a single mintie wrapper.

The evening concluded with Dvořák’s Suite, a collection of folk dances. The orchestra, aided by an expanded brass and woodwind section, achieved a pleasantly full sound, with rich musical climaxes. Particularly commendable was the stunning, warm flute solo in the third movement.

The average audience member at the concert was about 70 years old, a fact that made me concerned for and sad about the SSO’s future. At its best, the orchestra can transport listeners to somewhere exquisite and challenging, if only for an hour.  And it’s worth braving any and all moderately abusive old ladies for.

Art by Zita Walker