The crashing repeated chords that open John Adams’ 1985 Harmonielehre shift closer and closer together in the work’s opening bars, a series of telescoping rhythmic figures both relentless and dynamic. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor David Robertson was in his element in this music, deftly navigating each shift with precision, all the while keeping an eye on the work’s larger emotional arc.

SSO American HarmoniesTodd Gibson-Cornish, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in American Harmonies. Photo © Jay Patel

The Adams brought to a close American Harmonies, which – following last week’s performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie – is the American conductor’s final outing as the SSO’s Artistic Director. Over the course of his six-year tenure, Robertson has proved a charismatic musical communicator – his penchant for intelligently weaving more challenging 20th and 21st-century music into programs alongside canon repertoire has extended both the orchestra, and, I’m sure, its audience. The success of this approach is no doubt due to the clarity of his conducting, Robertson – who for many years conducted the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain – finding and conveying the logic of even the most complex music.

One of the recurring motifs of Robertson’s time at the SSO’s helm has been his introduction of new American repertoire to Australian audiences – such as the Australian premiere of Steve Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra earlier this year – and this final program, of three pieces from his homeland, is emblematic of his programming: Copland’s classic Appalachian Spring Suite and Adams’ Harmonielehre bookending a new bassoon concerto, co-commissioned by the SSO, from the late Christopher Rouse.

Few composers have defined the American sound the way Aaron Copland did, so his Appalachian Spring of 1944 was a fitting curtain-raiser for this concert. Francesco Celata’s clarinet emerged seamlessly from a morning mist of violas in the opening of the suite Copland derived from his Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet music for choreographer Martha Graham, one of many pristine wind moments in this sunny account by Robertson and the SSO, including Celata’s later rendition of the famous Simple Gifts hymn melody. Robertson practically danced on the podium as the strings conjured festive country fiddlers, while the SSO’s Associate Concertmaster Harry Bennetts, in the hot seat for this performance, duetted exquisitely with Celata and Shefali Pryor on oboe. With clean brass and an airy, ‘open plain’ string sound, the Copland set the scene for the two more recent giants of American music on the program, both Pulitzer Prize winners themselves.

Christopher Rouse died just a few months ago at the age of 70, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra giving the posthumous premiere of his Symphony No 6 a month later, and while in retrospect this Bassoon Concerto – dedicated to Robertson, who premiered his Third Symphony – might feel prophetic or even confessional, ideas of death have long infused his music, which in an interview in 2018 Rouse couched in the vein of a post-1960s return to expressivity: “There’s a lot of music that is not definably tonal but still is clearly meant to be expressive,” he said. “And I guess that would apply to more than a little of my music.”

Rouse described this Bassoon Concerto – which Andrew Cuneo premiered with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Cristian Măcelaru last year – as one of his ‘genial’ works and the music is removed from the tenebrous force and stormy intensity of the Trombone Concerto that won him the Pulitzer in 1993 (though it is not without the elegiac darkness that touches much of his work). Rather, in its gentle lyricism the Bassoon Concerto is more akin to Rouse’s Flute Concerto, first performed in 1994, particularly in the hands of Todd Gibson-Cornish, who gave the Australian premiere in this performance.

The New Zealander, appointed as the SSO’s Principal Bassoon in 2016 at the age of 21, offered a spritely, flowing account of the solo, leaping out of a growling low register in the Concerto’s opening before bringing a velvet tone and easy athleticism to Rouse’s music. His instrument was baritone-like as he plumbed the low register in the Concerto’s slower, central movement, with an ethereal, soprano saxophone-like quality as he soared over shimmering strings. It’s a beautifully multi-hued work – muted horns highlight notes in the bassoon solo, while dissonant harp chords conjure an eerie atmosphere – and Rouse deals with the challenges of balancing the softer instrument with the ensemble by stripping back the texture to allow the bassoon solos to sing out. It was only in the final movement that the balance became a source of tension, the bassoon slithering across the surface of the livelier orchestral textures, the energetic finale seeming to pull up short of a show-stopper ending – there was an edge of ambivalence to the virtuosic final flourish.

While Rouse and Adams were born on the same day exactly two years apart, their music explores very different sound worlds, Adams drawing on a minimalist aesthetic and rejecting what he has described as “the aural ugliness of so much of the new work being written” – yet the two composers share a keen sense of the expressive. In Harmonielehre, Adams rejects the legacy of Arnold Schoenberg and serialism – the work is named for Schoenberg’s treatise on harmony – in a symphonic work drawing on inspirations as diverse as fin de siècle late Romanticism and pre-serialism Schoenberg to Minimalism and a dream Adams had about an oil tanker launching skyward out of the San Francisco Bay.

Robertson and the SSO skilfully bound these elements together in this performance, from the powerful momentum of the first movement’s opening to the music’s lush, Mahlerian expansiveness. Robertson has never been sniffy about people clapping between movements, often turning to acknowledge them with a warm smile and a nod, and when audience members responded to the impact of Adams’ first movement with applause, Robertson simply responded with a smile: “I know the composer and he doesn’t mind applause here.”

The music takes a darker turn, and David Elton’s heartbreakingly lyrical trumpet solo in the brooding second movement – named The Amfortas Wound for the never-healing wound of the keeper of the Holy Grail – recalled something of Rouse’s slow movement, before Robertson built to a raw, searing climax, soothed only by the balm of the third movement’s berceuse. Named Meister Eckhardt and Quackie (another dream, involving the German mystic and Adams’ daughter Emily, once nicknamed Quackie), it is glittering, whimsical music, which Robertson coaxed to an ecstatic finale. An emotional, and ultimately very personal, close to the conductor’s tenure.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs American Harmonies at the Sydney Opera House until November 30