After a difficult year in which the pandemic forced the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra (SUSO) to cancel two concerts and regular rehearsals, Playing Together (Separately) showcased an impressive array of chamber music and offered hope for the full-fledged return of campus orchestral music in 2021. Unable to play together as one, a kind of orchestra-by-rotation emerged. Seven alternating wind and string chamber groups provided variety and formed a cogent whole that put SUSO’s depth of talent on full display — the performance certainly lived up to its name.
Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, unusual for its chromaticism and dissonance (which contributed to its one-time banning by Soviet authorities), began the concert with a bracing opening, before a gentle recital of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, which featured particularly enjoyable pizzicato in its second movement. Friedman’s Zephyr Dances for brass provided the concert with a notably jovial accent and was followed by the highlight of Dvořák’s lovely Serenade for Strings, which was bolstered by the largest chamber group of the afternoon.
A series of folk tunes followed, whereupon an “extremely strong westerly wind” reportedly nearly blew in the front doors, according to SUSO President and flautist Belinda Zhang. Thanks to Zhang’s heroic efforts, however, the doors remained intact, and the concert continued, unimpeded. Brahms’ powerful String Sextet No. 1 and an entertaining rendition of Bizet perennial favourite Carmen Suite brought the two-hour display of impressive and moving musical talent to a close.
The concert was held in the Chapel at St Andrew’s College, an intimate setting, and one mercifully unafflicted by the ventilation problems which left performers sweltering during a November concert at the same location. It is, however, a venue borne of necessity, given not only social-distancing requirements, but severe financial constraints. Despite consistently delivering high-quality, well-attended performances, SUSO faces funding shortages and a chronic lack of University support. Hiring the Great Hall, SUSO’s home venue, costs the orchestra $6,490 a day — an obscene sum for an organisation largely reliant on increasingly limited Clubs & Societies funding.
In this light, Playing Together (Separately) was a joyous and compelling reminder of the value of classical music on campus. One would hope that such a performance would move the University to better support its performing ensembles, if only it were willing to listen.
SUSO wishes to acknowledge the generosity of St Andrew’s College in providing a rehearsal and performance space free of charge over the last year, which has allowed them to continue operating.