Review: Sydney University Sydney Orchestra’s Slavic Reflections

The concert's old-new-old music sandwich formula proved to be a satisfying and enjoyable night of music

The Sydney University Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert was a thoroughly enjoyable night with some truly commendable playing. Ably helmed by conductor Luke Spicer, the orchestra was engaging and energetic across each item on its varied program, beginning with excerpts from the first, second, seventh and eighth of Dvořák’s ‘Slavonic Dances’. Though the work was originally conceived for solo piano, the orchestral version relishes the variance of its component instruments, and each section took its chance to shine with aplomb.

Achieving any sort of rhythmic clarity in such a booming space as the Great Hall is impressive, and for the most part, the cross rhythms of the first and eighth dances were articulately handled. Occasionally, clarity was lost in favour of frenzy, especially towards the climactic moments.The second dance was attacked with gusto by the impressive brass and percussion sections, and the camaraderie displayed by the players in the seventh and eighth dances was particularly charming. The beginning of the eighth dance required a couple of bars for the rhythm to settle, and the overall balance could perhaps have benefitted from more dynamic contrast. However, the energy was infectious, and the performance overall was competent and delightful.

The night also marked the world premiere of Gordon Hamilton’s ‘Age of the Universe’. It was thrilling to witness a brand new commission fill the middle of the new music sandwich formula that orchestras have taken to in their programming, and SUSO should be congratulated on their commitment to new Australian work.

Inspired by the ineffable magnitude of the universe, Hamilton’s piece uses the ‘power of halves’, taking an initial semiquaver motif, then halving its speed over 56 cycles, which eventually requires its final iteration to take the eponymous 13.8 billion years to play, at least in theory. In reality, the music unfolded without much sense of wonder. Though cited by the composer in his introductory notes as further appeal to the universal, the inverted harmonic series underpinning the entry of each layer proved an abstruse framework.

That said, the layering itself of Reich-esque motifs was effective. Highlights included every time the cellos came to the fore; the heroic double basses, who had an especially satisfying moment in the foreground; and the halving motif played over a harp glissando, deliciously slowed over its repeated iterations. The orchestra displayed wonderful balance in sparser sections, allowing the upper harmonics to truly sparkle.

While Tchaikovsky himself regarded the piece a failure, his Symphony no. 5 made for a triumphant second half. Spicer most noticeably seemed in his element with this repertoire, and the sweeping exchanges of two-bar phrases in the first movement made for the orchestra’s finest playing of the night.

The second movement’s french horn solo was gorgeously played by principal Jack Stephens, supported and later met with wonderful passion by the cellos. However, most other solos in this movement were unfortunately swallowed by the relentlessly powerful string section. Balance was only achieved towards the end of this movement, with the strings’ unison of the second theme matched by the brass and woodwind sections going for broke.

The quick lines of the third movement waltz were deftly handled but marred slightly by an unfortunate tuning discrepancy in the oboes, which lent a rawness to the sound suited to Dvořák, although proved distracting here. The finale’s best moments once again were those where the brass section rose to meet the strings in volume. Perhaps a more thrilling performance would explore the deathly quiet possibilities offered by the orchestration, especially for a work that seems in many ways to prefigure the ‘Pathétique’. Nonetheless, the contrast across the whole program was skilfully handled, and made for a highly satisfying night of music.