So much of our experience of music relies on memory. The return of a theme, melody or key area only resonates when the listener – consciously or unconsciously – remembers its earlier iteration. Ideas of musical memory are at the heart of the Steven Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool, the Australian premiere of which David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave as part of New World Memories. Robertson has been an advocate of Mackey’s music in Sydney, performing the Australian premiere of the composer’s piano concerto Stumble to Grace with Orli Shaham as soloist in 2012, and the violin concerto Beautiful Passing, with Anthony Marwood in 2015.

Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool, which was first performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Dudamel in 2015, takes its name from the Greek goddess of memory Mnemosyne, who was mother to the nine muses. Her pool was the opposite number to the River Lethe, which allowed those who travelled through the underworld to forget their past lives.

Mackey’s 40-minute epic takes the audience on a different kind of journey, the first movement, Variations, presenting a winding string figure that becomes hazed and distorted through its repetitions, gritty textures, and colourful reworkings of instrumentation. The sound world is expansive and with a fully kitted out percussion section the large forces vary not just melodic but also textural material. Rattling figures from the percussion are recalled in bouncing pizzicati and the abrasive texture of muted brass. The music seethes and moves throughout, in a constant flux that leaves the listener struggling to hold on to and remember landmarks.

The second movement, Déjà vu (Medley), wanders more freely, the associations more difficult to track as the music moves through textural gestures, a playfully clarinet solo by Philip Green emerging from the surging orchestra before a dramatic shift to a lushly Romantic melody from the violins, accompanied – as the composer puts it – by “preposterous chatter.”

A writhing oboe solo from Shefali Pryor set Fleeting in motion, the vigorous melody soon taken up be flute and spreading across the rest of the orchestra. Blazing major-key figures are replaced by jagged brass, the movement – which moves seamlessly into the fourth, In Memorium A.H.S., becoming darker, driven by snare and timpani. Umberto Clerici and Catherine Hewgill’s duetting cellos were a highlight, before the return of bouncing pizzicati effects provides a sense of larger continuity, recalling the opening movement.

The finale, Echo, opens with glittering percussion, repeated plucked harmonics from the double bass then harp creating a sense of rhythmic stability against the surging ensemble. A wild solo from concertmaster Andrew Haveron danced above the chaos. Despite the surging movement of the music, by now it seemed full of memories, allusions and vague, false memories, the mass of sound finally disintegrating into shimmering transparency.

Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool, epic in scale, but with a relentlessly driving sense of motion, was engaging throughout. The musical reminiscences – from direct references to tantalisingly oblique (even imagined) suggestions – tug at the listener, and the work will no doubt repay repeated listening.

Bookending this titan were two musical ‘postcards’. Mendelssohn’s well-loved The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Overture Op. 26, which opened the concert, was inspired by the composer’s visit to Fingal’s Cave in Scotland on his European Grand Tour in 1829, where he wrote down his musical impressions in a letter to his family, later working them into the overture.

Robertson kept a light hand on the tiller in the opening – Mendelssohn’s repeated use of the distinctive six-note motif taking on a different significance when set opposite the Mackey – before pushing forward as the music gained momentum, the work flowing organically. Highlights were the cello section – their combined sound taking on a rich, horn-like timbre – and Green, whose honey-toned clarinet solo was a delight.

At the other end of the evening, balancing the weight of the Mackey, was Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony From the New World. Robertson delivered a taut performance right from the spacious opening, which featured a particularly magical decrescendo from the SSO horn section, to the robust Allegro con fuoco. The playing across the orchestra was fantastic. The brass blazed in the fourth movement’s opening fanfare, the horns – from hauntingly delicate solo moments by David Pyatt to the momentous tutti passages – were in top shape throughout, and the winds were excellent. Alexandre Oguey delivered the famous cor anglais solo with a warm, luxurious sound.

The Dvořák, even more so than the Mendelssohn, offered plenty of opportunity to explore ideas of musical memory. Aside from the musical baggage that inevitably comes with hearing such a well known piece of music, there were plenty of moments that seemed to have heightened significance as a result of the pairing with the Mackey – such as the opening flourish of the third movement, with its nod to the Beethoven Nine Scherzo, and the recurrence of earlier motifs across the four movements of the symphony (a technique Beethoven also used in the Ninth). And in a listener’s ears, musical history isn’t simply linear – I defy anyone to hear the opening of Dvořák’s fourth movement without their mind touching, however briefly and reluctantly, on memories of John Williams’ Jaws soundtrack.

What was rewarding about this programme was that in spite of – on one level – baldly employing the tried and true trick of wrapping a more ‘adventurous’ programming choice in box-office catnip (the success of which was evidenced by what seemed an almost completely full house on Wednesday night), the overall concept worked exceptionally well. Robertson and the SSO drew clever connections across the three works, resulting in a concert that was both intellectually stimulating and musically satisfying, introducing an exciting new work and offering a chance to hear old favourites with new ears.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs New World Memories at the Sydney Opera House until August 26.