Review: Sydney University Symphony Orchestra’s Concert 3

It was a delightful program for a Sunday afternoon concert—a lovely ode to Spring.

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The Sydney University Symphony Orchestra (SUSO) heralded the arrival of spring with the symphonic works of the great Romantic composers Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Sweet lyricism, blossoming melodies evoking idyllic scenes and honeyed tones infused the Great Hall in SUSO’s third installation of the year, Konzertstück.

Principal Conductor Luke Spicer indulged the audience with Schubert’s Symphony No.5, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 and Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, featuring soloists Robert Johnson, the former Principal Horn of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and emerging talents Andrew London, Jack Stephens and Lotti Ropert.

The concert’s scintillating brass showpiece was Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, literally meaning Concert Piece. Schumann composed this lesser known work in 1849, exploring the capabilities of the newly-developed French-valved horn that only four virtuosic horn players could master.

A strident opening with symmetric fanfare, projected brilliantly by the four soloists, set the high standard of Konzertstück. Throughout the three movements, the jovial character and festivity of the piece was maintained with its masterfully executed idiomatic flourishes and grand swells. The creamy chording of the four horns achieved a tenderness that complemented the otherwise demanding technique, with tripping, arpeggiated passages, crisp interjections and a strained upper register, testified by flushed cheeks and the brimming spit-valve that had to be swiftly emptied during the short break between movements. Such intensity was somewhat lacking in the orchestra. Nevertheless, the notoriously challenging violin passage was accomplished and didn’t detract from the horns’ heroic, brilliant finish.

The individual colours of the orchestra were more intimately explored in Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, scored for a chamber-sized orchestration without the clarinet, trumpet and timpani. The orchestra delivered clarity, precision, with a touch of the Mozartean, bucolic charm that characterises Schubert’s 5th.

Divinely light and elegant sentences, with a seamless dialogue of lyrical fragments between woodwinds and strings, floated throughout the first movement. At times, the sparkling voice of the flute submerged under the collective heft of the violins, although this imbalance can be excused given the piece was written for one flute, rather than the customary pair. The orchestra developed into the courtly second movement, Andante con moto (slowly but with motion) shaded with darker, melancholic twinges.

The oboe stood out in the third movement for its expressive solos, contrasting the playful energy of Minuetto. With the upbeat punctuated by the occasional sharp inhale of the conductor, the orchestral force came to life, dexterously moving as one into the zealous Allegro Vivace movement.

While the celli could have used more of a leggioro touch to avoid dragging and sounding heavy, the youthful, charming energy prevailed.

Continuing with serenade-like sweetness, now mixed with temperamental moods, Brahms’ Symphony No.2 in D Major, coined ‘Brahms’ Pastoral Symphony’ à la Beethoven, dabbled with dramatic tempo changes, whimsical lullaby-like motifs and various timbres.

Somewhere, Spicer lost his baton and the orchestra lost its rhythmic pulse briefly meandering out of synchronicity, or perhaps it was simply the destabilising cross rhythms, but both recovered shortly after.

The second movement Adagio non-troppo receded into a brooding quality, with the lamenting, poignant celli melody matched with the reedy bassoons. In the slower tempo, the expressive, contrapuntal melodies were drawn out.

In the third Scherzo movement, a folksy ‘dance’ underpinned by resonant celli came to life, contrasted with the Presto (very fast) section which was fittingly enhanced by the jolty movement of first desk violinists. It was a rhythmically complex and playful contrast to the earlier movements, with frequent meter changes and exuberant cross-rhythms, although the energy levels amongst the musicians fluctuated during the 40-minute piece.

But for the finale, the stamina was momentarily regained to deftly harness the swerving, unpredictable character of the Allegro con Spiritothe entire orchestra, culminated into a cacophonic, vibrant and rousing close.

It was a delightful program for a Sunday afternoon concert, evoking delightful pastoral images, sunny blue skies—a lovely ode to Spring.