The crashing repeated chords that open John Adams’ 1985 Harmonielehreshift 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 Harmonies Todd 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...

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