This cleverly planned programme, played with panache by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, was notable for its comedy. Haydn’s Symphony No 60, which is in six movements (although many of the audience applauded after the fourth), is actually a suite. It consists of an overture and five incidental pieces Haydn wrote for a production of a play, Le distrait (The distracted man) by Jean-François Regnard. The play is a farce and Haydn’s music is shot through with wit, more so even than usual. The most obvious joke comes in the finale where the strings stop to retune, playing in open fifths, after hitting a discord. David Robertson’s conducting was suitably – and deliberately – distracted from time to time, but his trademark precision ensured tight ensemble from the small orchestral forces. (It was also a distraction to see the double basses to the conductor’s left and the two harps, used in the later pieces, to his right.)
Richard Strauss’s highly pictorial Fantastic Variations on the subject of Don Quixote requires a solo cello to represent the central character. Rather than use an international touring superstar, this performance did as the composer intended and featured the orchestra’s Principal Cellist. Umberto Clerici did a tremendous job, clearly identifying with the protagonist throughout his contrasting adventures and moods, and showed great proficiency and musicianship. His playing of the Don’s final Death Scene was movingly done. The orchestra matched him for excitement and sheer heart, not least solo violist Tobias Breider who played the role of Sancho Panza. Texts designed to let us know where we were in the piece’s scenario were projected onto a screen during the performance. Personally, I found this a distraction (but I suppose that fitted in with the Haydn!), and occasionally their timing was out. They omitted to mention Variation Three altogether. It didn’t matter: Strauss, Clerici, Robertson and the SSO took us on a quixotic journey perfectly well.
Variations for Orchestra by the long-lived American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012) was the odd piece out – so much so that the welcoming, affable conductor felt the need to give us a verbal sales pitch before embarking on it. Again, the performance was scrupulously balanced, as such complex music needs to be, and the kaleidoscope of shifting orchestral colours registered with clarity. It’s tough, but much of it is sonically beguiling. Mind you, this “modern stuff” (the work is only 62 years old) elicited only grudging applause from the afternoon crowd. Some probably wished that a handful of Carter’s 103 years might have been siphoned off and redistributed to Mozart or Schubert instead.
The orchestra’s enjoyment was clear in a programme that amounted to an event. The quirky Haydn, the challenging Carter and the deeply human Strauss complemented each other nicely, with Clerici providing the concert’s outstanding moments.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs Don Quixote again at the Sydney Opera House June 17