Gleaming brass and crackling strings open Lachlan Skipworth’s Fanfara, the latest in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Australian commissioning series 50 Fanfares. Sydney audiences might remember Skipworth’s music from his monumental Breath of Thunder, which the SSO premiered in 2018 under the baton of Gerard Salonga, and guest conductor Asher Fisch is certainly no stranger, having premiered Skipworth’s Hinterland with his own West Australian Symphony Orchestra that same year. But Fanfara is a very different beast. Absent are the Japanese influences and instruments so integral to Breath of Thunder, instead Skipworth’s blazing opening gives way to lyrical string writing – with a beautiful oboe solo from Shefali Pryor – and a more direct sound world that brings to mind both the sweeping majesty and pastoral cosiness of Howard Shore’s music for the Lord of the Rings films. Written in celebration of the return of live, communal music-making, Fanfara swings from lush textures to the sound of cascading solo harp, the triumphant finish full of hope for the future.
Asher Fisch. Photo © Nik Babic
The sense of joyous fanfare continued with the bright ‘Turkish’ percussion of Mozart’s Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio before the song-like Clarinet Concerto – written almost a decade later in 1791 for Anton Stadler and his basset clarinet – ushered in a more hushed, though no less joyful, mood. This year has already seen a number of the SSO’s musicians take the spotlight as soloists and this concert was no exception. Francesco Celata, who has been Associate Principal Clarinet with the SSO since 1993, gave a wonderfully limpid, long-breathed account of the solos, caressing Mozart’s phrases with a smooth sound that reached right to the corners of the Town Hall even at its softest moments. Fisch proved a sensitive partner, the balance impeccable throughout. There was a moment in the Adagio, as the theme returns in the recapitulation, when Celata’s clarinet was almost a whisper, cushioned by soft strings – magical stuff – before the strings bloomed again in the tutti, Celata and Fisch capping it all off with a sparkling finale.
Schumann’s Second Symphony, which Mendelssohn premiered in 1846, was the composer’s first major work after a breakdown that saw him unable to write for a year, clawing his way back to composition through studying the music of Bach – to whom there are several references in the piece. Fisch allowed the longer musical arguments to unfold in the first movement before delivering feverish energy and crisp articulation in the Scherzo. There were a few moments, particularly in the first movement, when the shine of the brass washed out some of the details in the string lines, but there were also some simply exquisite wind moments – such as the oboe and bassoon over aching strings in the Adagio espressivo. The wind lines – and the devastating simplicity with which Fisch and his forces dispatched the fugue section – made the third movement a particular highlight, before a full-blooded finale, with its nod to Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, brought the evening to a sunny conclusion.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Mozart & Schumann is at the Sydney Town Hall until 20 March