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The Willoughby Symphony Orchestra Plays at Sydney’s Newest Concert Hall

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The Concourse, the new culture house, showing Warren Langley's fluorescent public art work. Photo: Alan Miller.

The Concourse, Chatswood, Sydney: 7 October, 2011
repeated 9 October 2011

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B minor, Opus 23

Alexey Yemtsov – piano

Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125

Celeste Lazarenko – soprano
Anna Yun – mezzo-soprano
Warren Fisher – tenor
James Olds – bass-baritone

Willoughby Symphony Choir
Sarah Penicka-Smith – choir master

Willoughby Symphony Orchestra
Nicholas Milton – conductor

The Willoughby Symphony, founded in 1965 and based in Sydney’s northern suburbs, played the first concert in their new hall. It is an exciting occasion to christen a new concert hall and I marvel at it all the more that it was built in Sydney’s North Shore where new building is almost exclusively in the form of hideous apartment blocks which have destroyed many of the area’s old gardens and once contiguous tree canopy. The 1000-seat hall is part of a whole culture house called The Concourse, which also has a 500-seat theatre, some impressive-sounding rehearsal space and the new home of the area’s borrowing library. Willoughby Council deserves credit for pulling this off when the New South Wales state government one level up cannot manage anything like it for Barangaroo, right next to Sydney’s downtown, let alone the second, Frank Gehry-designed opera house that’s begging to be built there. But I mustn’t be negative; this isn’t the occasion.

Director and Conductor Nicholas Milton picked out a generous program which such an occasion demands of two large pieces, both very difficult for entirely different reasons. Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is a huge, gangly piece of symphonic music yet not his finest piece. There are musicologists who have more or less torn it to pieces while standing behind Nicholas Rubinstein’s original criticism, Tchaikovsky’s until-then-friend who first heard the concerto privately, but devastated it cruelly, according to the composer. This and later criticism of course have not affected the piece’s popularity down to the present day, unless by making it more popular through reverse psychology. One can enjoy the lyrical piano sections, the more inventive, interesting themes, even the sensational climaxes, but listening to Swan Lake, composed 3 years after the concerto, or the Symphonies it is easy to be sucked, body as well as soul, into the superior music with its lucid overall arc which so easily takes over one’s whole attention, and realize the earlier concerto is missing something. Tchaikovsky’s very name presents a complicated myriad of expectations which magnify any disappointment. Then there is Beethoven’s Ninth, for all intents and purposes the first of a century’s worth of choral symphonies and symphonies not necessarily choral but similarly expanded under the influence of their free-minded composers, an inheritance continuing into the 20th Century. It is a bit more difficult to trace the this lineage in modern times, the last century and this one. But the Ninth is timeless, and inexhaustible by virtue of its versatility and lush variety of material melodic, harmonic and rhythmic, the orchestration as intricate and jigsaw-like as anything composed before but still with a very warm, human relationship between orchestra, chorus and soloists.

In the concerto, Alexey Yemtsov sounded especially in his element in the lyrical cadenzas, using subtle rubato that showed a very good understanding of the music and his nuanced dynamics — remarkable for a performance in a new hall — allowed him fine control which supported his sense of mystery which tended to deepen the listener’s appreciation and understanding of the music as a whole, even if it is not their favorite piece of music. Even in those very loud or very catchy sections played with the orchestra, he did not hammer or strike me as heavy handed in any way and balanced well volume-wise with the orchestra.

The strings were very steady and quite clear and pleasing in their ensemble tone in the softer and mezzo-forte sections. Dr. Milton phrased in a somewhat exaggerated way their first theme in the first movement, which sounded like more than the music could hold. At some of the first attacks of a movement, the strings sounded a little uncertain, no doubt due to nerves since later in the movement in the repeat of these attacks the strings were sharp. Indeed the loud repeated chords with all or most of the orchestra were very tight and cohesive, one could tell Dr. Milton took especial care over these. I didn’t agree with the timing of some of the silences, which are intrinsically abrupt and mark sudden shifts in rhythm and tempo, but some of the pulse and momentum of the music was lost at these points. Also at these points Yemtsov and the orchestra didn’t seem quite in complete understanding. Flautist Katrina Kelvin shone in a part which is virtuosic enough in places to count as a second soloist’s, with her sparkling, consistent tone and phrasing which was sweet but with much verve, even in the very fast sections. Oboist Rie Tamaru also deserves mention, playing another difficult part with vivacity; these two had a very close rapport in the concert. The balance such that the the woodwinds in the tutti climaxes could be easily heard was remarkable given the acoustic space was new to the musicians, though the horns were a bit too prominent as were the single reeds as they had their backs up against the back wall of the hall, but these are minor creases which no doubt will get ironed out easily as the orchestra beds into their new home.

For the Beethoven’s Ninth, a stronger feel for the whole came through in the orchestra’s and the conductor’s interpretation. This is understandable since there is much more here for the musicians to get their teeth into; though this symphony is more work to interpret than the Tchaikovsky First Concerto, it is perhaps easier to interpret being the more interesting and inspiring thing to think about day in, day out while rehearsing. Their understanding of each theme and the peculiar moods of each movement, which build in such an odd and unexpected way, not revealing their true selves fully until the “O Freunde!” of the last movement, carried the listener along very smoothly with a good continuous flow and pulse. The audience as a whole showed their great appreciation in the howling applause and multiple curtain calls but more importantly in their near-dead silence between movements — we wanted to hear what came next! what finer thing of praise can musicians have? (besides a new concert hall, of course). As for the few rude pests in the audience talking during the music, well they shouldn’t have bothered to come if they didn’t like the music.

The singing was a highlight of the evening. First of course was James Olds who in his solo announcement “O Freunde, nicht diese Tone!” knew how to just fill the hall with the fine human tone to his register’s upper range, which had immediacy (even where I was sitting near the back row of the circle near the side), but also gentleness, and a sense of occasion to mark this turn in the symphony’s argument. He was just a bit too soft in the ensembles after this to fill in under Warren Fisher, but having said that the quartet sang the ensembles with enough balance that all could be heard without anyone’s toes being stepped on. Indeed they had a close rapport, fresh-sounding and inviting, their interrelationships generously adding a dimension to their performance. Celeste Lazarenko sang with an interesting human tone which was very easy to listen to — warm and welcoming. Anna Yun though her part doesn’t allow much standing out, had a similar quality and the pair had a particularly close rapport within the ensemble, interweaving their voices in an inspired way. Warren Fisher’s tenor is very clean, his phrasing clear and down to earth, rather inclined to put the music first. The chorus had remarkable solidarity and a clean, not-too-rich way of harmonizing. They adroitly navigated Schiller’s poetry, shifting lightly between the celestial and the earthly, human, brotherly love.

In the wave which begins down in the basses and cellos and gradually swings across, the violas got a chance to shine, showing their their very fine ensemble tone with very clean articulation and good control. Again the woodwinds shone and the bassoons too played very touchingly even though they didn’t have the bedding of the contrabassoon for this performance.

The interior of the new concert hall. Photo: The Concourse hompage.

As for the new concert hall itself, it is immediately striking for its depth in proportion to its length and breadth, a bit like the shape of an old-fashioned bathtub. The arrangement of the hall is in-between a classic shoebox and an amphitheater, having a broad, flat wall behind the orchestra which closes a basic rectangular shape but a balcony-dress circle which comes quite far over the stalls (8-10 rows) and fairly steep raked seating and boxes behind and to the sides of the orchestra’s platform. The acoustics are intimate, but at the same time the depth of the hall pulls the sound source somewhat down into a well. The acoustics are warm and bright, but allow for good detail and they only hurt very slightly in the final climax of the Beethoven’s Ninth with the full chorus sitting above and behind the orchestra, which is about as many musicians as the hall will ever see at one time. The detail and relatively small space allows marvelous sparkling highs. In this way it was a treat to hear Alexey Yemtsov play the extreme upper range of the Willoughby Symphony’s brand-new Steinway which seemed hardly to drop off at that end of its range. The Symphony gave the audience a thorough taste of the hall, boldly putting it through its full paces with a choral symphony, a romantic concerto and Alexey Yemtsov’s solo encore, showing also the hall’s sensitivity to recital music, though there might well be a sweet spot around the size of a 1780 Mozart symphony.

The rather slick new noughties Sydney style of the architecture of the building is a little disappointing, and unfortunately reminds me of university lecture halls (as much the smell perhaps as the appearance). But the acoustics concert hall are good and the larger building has a boldness in so far that it exists at all as a suburban building whose purpose is not limited to consuming and profit-making, and this is appealing and exciting. The Willoughby Symphony now embarks on an enviable adventure, as they get used to their new home, they have the talent and opportunity to further develop a subtle tone and master a deep control over their interpretations while at the same time they have the scope to play almost any music — they could present some very good recitals and chamber music as well as symphonies, potentially even concert opera, and everything between.

The Concourse, the new culture house in Sydney's north. Photo: The Concourse hompage.

2 thoughts on “The Willoughby Symphony Orchestra Plays at Sydney’s Newest Concert Hall

  1. Hi Andrew. Thanks for those great comments! Hope to see you at more WSO concerts.

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