The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Keys to the City Festival sees the orchestra return to the Sydney Town Hall, the ensemble’s home until the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973. A piano festival with Russian-American pianist Kirill Gerstein and the SSO’s outgoing Chief David Robertson, it’s also a test run for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, which will see the orchestra based in the Town Hall while the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall is refurbished. There were, perhaps inevitably, some teething issues – a bottle-neck had the audience queuing up the steps minutes before the concert was due to start – but it’s a warm, lively acoustic, and a colourful, folkloric program showed off orchestra, soloist and venue to great effect.

Kirill Gerstein. Photo © Marco Borggreve

Sibelius’ early tone poem En Saga was a case in point, from quietly shimmering strings and the luminous entry of the winds to the grandeur of the SSO basses, this was a rousing, multi-hued account. The Town Hall certainly gives the orchestra a different flavour – the string sound is rich, but the winds sometimes get buried in the tuttis, while the blazing trumpets and trombones, perched above the ensemble, set the hall ringing. The winds shone in solo moments, however, and Francesco Celata’s clarinet solo, weaving through misty strings, was bewitching.

Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto was also an early work, written when the composer was just 24, and it brims with energy and influences from Norwegian folk music. Gerstein gave a suitably athletic account of the famous opening flourish, and while his second entry seemed to splash a wrong note or two, this was a surging, characterful performance from start to finish. He gave the quiet moments plenty of breathing room, while his high register glittered madly, and the return of the main theme at the end of the first movement throbbed with power. Robertson coaxed a particularly warm sound from the strings in the second movement before Gerstein floated in the piano entry, and the balance was impeccable throughout. The pianist gave a muscular reading of the third movement, building with virtuosic flair to the triumph of the final dramatic piano chords.

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, the red flag of a hallucinatory revenge/victimhood fantasy born of his obsession with Irish actor Harriet Smithson, is not short on colour either. Robertson was thoughtful and restrained in the sighing opening, while the first iteration of the Idée fixe, representing the artist’s beloved, was nimble and bright, the only warning of the trouble to come in the quickening of the basses’ heartbeat, as Robertson began to stoke the music’s rising intensity. The dream-like harp and feverish strings were magical ushering in the waltz, and this performance was full of great wind moments – Alexandre Oguey’s cor anglais lines in In the Fields (with offstage oboe in the opening, and rumbling timpani in the close) was a particular highlight, as was the E Flat clarinet in the Sabbath Night Dream. The Sabbath and the March to the Scaffold were given particularly thrilling readings by Robertson. The ophicleides brought a grotesque energy to the Dies Irae, offset by the magisterial gleam of the trombones.

A fine house-warming concert that set the Town Hall ringing for the Keys to the City Festival and the seasons to come.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Kirill Gerstein performs Grieg‘s Piano Concerto is at the Sydney Town Hall until August 10


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