BY WENDY ZHANG
Simone Young Conducts Mahler 2
Sydney Symphony Orchestra with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Children’s Choir and Gondwana Choirs
Sydney Opera House, 24 July
After two-and-a-half years of renovation, the Sydney Opera House concert hall reopened its door to a sold-out crowd with a challenging program – Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection — which was one of the most popular symphonies ever written that celebrated the beauty of afterlife; and a newly commissioned piece Of the Earth by contemporary didgeridoo player and composer William Barton. It turned out to be a spectacular evening of music, delivered by Simone Young, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Children’s Choir and Gondwana Choirs. The sound of the clapsticks, the voice of mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble, and the sound of musical instruments played simultaneously inside and outside the concert hall were some of the highlights for me, as I was ecstatic to see a ‘live’ concert after so long.
The concert opened with William Barton’s newly commissioned piece Of the Earth, which draws its influence from Mahler and his own song of the earth Das Lied von der Erde, according to the concert program. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra opened the piece with percussion instruments playing quietly, then gradually getting louder, as images of the sun slowly rising from the earth appearing in my mind. It was joined by strings, drums, and voices of the choir as it built to a climax. Then, members of the Gondwana Children’s Choir and Sydney Children’s Choir quietly walked in and stood at the side of the stage as they began humming softly, and playing the clapsticks made from the wood of the old and new concert hall itself. With interesting percussion sounds mimicking the birds, waterfall, and nature, this made the piece atmospheric and earthy, and reminded me of the Lion King movie track Circle of Life. It was a unique experience to listen to an orchestral piece, yet feel like I was in nature, witnessing the beauty of the earth, sun, water, and animals. The Sydney Opera House’s new acoustic greatly enhanced my experience hearing the instruments and voices from all parts of the concert hall.
After a short interval, Simone Young led the Sydney Symphony Orchestra through the much-anticipated Resurrection symphony. The opening immediately grabbed my attention as the bass and cellos repeated the short thematic phrase in unison, as if asking the ultimate question: ‘What is life worth living for if we all have to die in the end?’ In contrast to the dark and seriousness of the bass played in C minor, there were short passage of harmonious and beautiful music by the violins, harps, and flutes, played in the major key.
My favourite of the piece was the fourth movement, led by mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble singing Primordial Light. She performed with an extremely moving and passionate voice. I learnt from the pre-concert talk that the original mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was ill just before the concert, and Deborah had to learn the songs in a few hours before appearing in the first performance. It was impressive to see her sing such a difficult piece with confidence and ease, and handle this pressure calmly – something we all should learn from.
There were four drums in the orchestra, all played in unison and building up to a climax as they clashed with a dissonant sound — full of anger, frustration and energy, accentuated by the gongs and drums. Then, the trumpet and drums outside the hall started playing, announcing the theme. It was followed by instruments playing on the stage. To me, Mahler was establishing the sense of life and afterlife through the use of musical instruments from inside and outside the concert hall, and it really made me stop and listen. I enjoyed listening to the difference in sound coming from musical instruments from the hall and beyond, and feel inspired to experiment with this technique in some of my own work in music.
The choirs and the orchestra under the guidance of Simone Young worked together to build up to an astonishing finale — powerful, emotional, relentless; reminding us the beauty of the afterlife, which is ultimately the story of hope, revival, and new beginnings — something we should all be focusing on and cheering for in a post-pandemic world.
Images supplied. Credit: Daniel Boud.