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Review: Sydney University Wind Orchestra’s World Tour

SUWO took its audience on a musical journey highlighting the technical skill, musicality and versatility of its ensemble.

On Saturday, the Sydney University Wind Orchestra put on an outstanding first concert of the year at USyd’s Conservatorium of Music – their World Tour, a varied and exciting programme of world music that highlighted East Asian music and composers in particular. 

As the audience of supportive family and friends took their seats, the Con’s beautiful Verbrugghen Hall was illuminated with blue and red light, reminiscent of the VIVID spectacles occurring outside at Circular Quay. 

We began in China with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a perfect start to the evening. It opened with a bang, followed by a lush tutti legato, an upbeat middle section featuring a punchy percussion solo before the music calmed again, only to end by crescendoing to a brilliant climax. 

We then moved east with Japanese Folk Tune. This arrangement of traditional melodies by a Japanese composer utilises unique performing techniques to emulate traditional instruments. These were executed skilfully. 

As with many international journeys, we made a stop in Dubai. Australian composer Katy Abbot explains her work Jumeirah Jane as a tribute to pampered expat housewives in Dubai. While the playful harmonies and use of percussion were evocative, the complex metrical changes were somewhat distracting, and I came away wishing traditional Middle Eastern music had been featured instead.  

Next stop — Korea! Guest conductor Jasmine Jade-Mills led the orchestra in a beautiful arrangement of variations on Arirang, Korea’s most famous folk song. The variations ranged from plaintive to stateful, ending with a canon of the main theme before a slow, emphatic ending. 

We ended the first leg of our journey with African Symphony by Van McCoy, disco composer and producer most known for The Hustle. With its syncopated melodies, brass fanfares and scalic flute runs, this number evoked the optimism of the pan-African movement of the 1970s.  

After the interval, we rendezvoused in Eastern Europe with Bernstein’s Slava!. This upbeat, chaotic number featured growling brass, slide whistles and campy percussion, along with a middle section in 7/8 time reminiscent of Greek folk dances. The metre change was executed seamlessly and the ensemble’s joy was infectious.

Next, the world premiere of Australian composer Daniel Dinh’s The Stellar Nursery. Dinh has had a long association with SUWO starting as a student performer, and it shows, as this work highlighted every part of the ensemble. From its opening, reminiscent of the Star Trek opening credits, to the ending, which rang suspended for several seconds, Dinh skilfully  evokes the calm expanse of space. A beautiful work, and a well-needed breather in a predominantly high-energy programme.  

We returned to modern China with Elegant Refinement, a work that synthesised elements of Chinese music with classic military band style. This was another work that highlighted the ensemble’s brass players after the more woodwind-heavy arrangements of the first half. 

As we neared the end of our journey, we stopped over in New Mexico for John Mackey’s Lightning Field, inspired by an art installation of the same name – a vast stretch of desert marked by 400 steel poles that act as lightning conductors. Three members of the ensemble served as thunder-drummers, positioned at left, right and centre stage for stereophonic effect as we heard rain build into a storm that thrashed wildly before dying away as suddenly as it started. 

We parted in Japan, with My Neighbour Totoro by the inimitable Joe Hisaishi. This cheeky and charming arrangement had me smiling in my seat, the perfect ending to our journey. 

This was an all around excellent evening of music. While SUWO may not have charted the whole globe, the wind orchestra is an ensemble created by and for the Western classical music tradition. Within the constraints of instrumentation, available compositions, and arrangements, they did an outstanding job.

Shout out to the many soloists who played throughout the evening, along with the percussion section who truly held the ensemble together. Credit should also go to conductor Cathy Chan not only for her clear, effective conducting but for being an informative and charming compere. 

At the end of the show, I had the opportunity to speak with the conductors, SUWO’s President Emma Koch, and principal clarinettist Stephen Firmer. Stephen’s journey with SUWO deserves a mention. A pharmacist by profession, his daughter was a member of the ensemble years ago. When they needed a substitute for a state competition, Stephen’s daughter suggested him, and he has been with them ever since. SUWO is truly a community ensemble, and seeing non-professional musicians giving their time to making music simply for the beauty of it is heartwarming. 

SUWO’s next concert is on the 28th of October. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram for details closer to the date.