Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 12, 2018

A concert without a linking theme is a rarity nowadays, but that is what we heard tonight, and it was all the more interesting for its elements of contrast and surprise. (The notes by Gordon Kerry attempt to thread the program together through “nationalism”, which would be fine if there was anything remotely Scottish about James MacMillan’s concerto.)

The front of the Concert Hall stage was littered with weird and wonderful percussion instruments, but the opening piece dates from 1884: It is the great pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski’s first orchestral work, the Overture in E Flat: one of the few he wrote with no piano part. While it does have nationalistic melodic qualities, rather like a Polish version of Smetana, it predates the composer’s political career by decades and was not performed in his lifetime. A tuneful work with lovely scoring for the woodwinds, the repetitive overture eventually wears out its welcome. It was, nevertheless, winningly performed and conducted.

James MacMillan’s Percussion Concerto No 2 completed the first half of the concert. (His Percussion Concerto No. 1 is Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, one of his best known works.) The Second Concerto, written for the Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, is a technically demanding tour de force for both soloist and orchestra. The usual problem with percussion concertos is that, aside from marimba and vibraphone, percussion can’t carry melodic thematic material and ends up ‘commenting on’ rather than leading the musical argument. That is true to some extent in this piece, most notably during a heartfelt, surging string cantilena in the middle section. The composer avoids the trap elsewhere through the work’s sectional structure: each segment sets up a new fascinating sound world. To this end, a number of unusual percussion instruments are used. The biggest one is an aluphone (a metallophone made from aluminium bells), which was employed at least initially to mark the change of sections. Interestingly, the orchestral percussionists had a lot to do as well: there were two more marimbas in their section. However, it was definitely Claire Edwardes’ show, from her vigorous marimba playing in the beginning, through to her amazing quasi-improvisational work on the steel drum, and everything in between. She even operated a kick drum with her heel while facing the other way. The work concludes with a brass chorale (surrounded by much orchestral and percussive decoration) – unsurprisingly, as all MacMillan’s music has religious ritual at its base.

So rich and varied were the colours of the Concerto, they made Prokofiev’s Symphony No 5 sound comparatively safe. This great work of 1945 displayed its monumental side in Robertson’s hands, beginning more lyrically than usual. The climaxes when they came were meticulously prepared. In this performance I occasionally thought the strings could have been more precise in their decorative figures. Balance was an issue too: the important clarinet part in the second and fourth movements failed to cut through the texture, sensitively played though it was by Alexander Morris. Robertson conducted from memory: his trademark physicalisation of the music paid dividends in the strange, clockwork coda of the scherzo.

The program was capped with a spirited encore of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and the crowd went home happy. (Or those of them that stayed long enough to hear the encore. Why do people head for the doors as the last note is still reverberating? It’s so disrespectful.)