Percussive heaven, from Beethoven’s Seventh to a modern master
MUSIC Sydney Symphony Orchestra Percussion: Claire Edwardes. Conductor: David Robertson. Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, November 7.
Rhythm is one of music’s most powerful galvanising forces. So it was clever programming to make it the theme of this concert by matching Beethoven’s most rhythmically driven symphony (No 7) with a new concerto for percussion instruments.
Scottish composer James MacMillan’s first percussion concerto Veni Veni Emmanuel (1992) propelled him to international fame and has been performed hundreds of times.
His second percussion concerto, written 22 years later, is a different work: less contemplative, more overtly rhythmical, scored for a larger orchestra and employing a wider range of percussion instruments including the newly invented aluphone (a metallophone combining the effects of a vibraphone and bells). Its dedicatee, Colin Currie, describes it as a fascinating way of showing what can be done with “an up-to-theminute use” of percussion.
He’s right. Australian percussionist Claire Edwardes was kept busy moving swiftly between different batteries of percussion instruments and generating an intriguing and imaginative range of effects, colours and sounds.
Although cast in a single movement, the concerto has a distinct three-part structure. It starts off with frenetic energy and clangorous force, eventually evolving into a ruminative section dominated by a soulful string motif before gradually gathering steam for an explosive close.
MacMillan often set the soloist up in duels and discussions with the orchestra. Edwardes periodically did battle with dissonant fortissimo orchestral outbursts. The percussionists regularly responded to her marimba solos, her funky steel drum sequence featured an expressive duet with Roger Benedict’s solo viola, and muted brass chords menaced her gentle tuned cowbell musings.
Robertson performed Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony with the SSO in 2014. It was an exhilar- ating and bracing account. This time, his slightly more measured interpretation cleverly balanced Apollonian elegance with Dionysian energy. Tempos were still swift, the performers’ zestful rhythms and emphatic attack enlivened the three fast movements, and their steady tread and excellent dynamic control created a persuasive realisation of the popular second movement Allegretto.
What stood out was a stronger sense of refinement. The orchestral sound was lean yet smoothly contoured and Robertson’s crystalline textures and well-defined balances revealed a range of inner voice details. Texture and timbre rather than rhythm dominated the concert’s other work — a new version of Australian composer Brett Dean’s Engelsflugel ( Wings of Angels).
Originally composed for wind ensemble, Dean has recast it for full orchestra. He used the expanded sonic palette with delicacy and sophistication, evoking the eerie, unsettling expressionist sound-world of Schoenberg and Berg’s pieces for orchestra.
Concert repeated tonight and Monday. Tickets: $39-$132. Bookings: (02) 8215 4600 or online.