★★★★☆ Insightful concept packed with percussive thrills and spills.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
May 24, 2016

Here’s an intriguing and illuminating idea. Sydney Symphony Orchestra Director of Artistic Planning Benjamin Schwartz has collaborated with a handful of orchestral musicians to curate a set of concerts aimed at revealing a little bit about what makes a player tick through a selection of their favourite music. The second of the series focussed on Richard Miller, Principal Timpanist, and an SSO veteran of over 40 years. It would be fair to say that the affable, engaging percussionist can talk the hind legs off the proverbial donkey, so what was intended to be a one-hour format ran closer to 90 minutes, but no matter; what ensued was an insightful, sometimes emotional portrait of a musician, his life and his enthusiasms, presented in ideally relaxed circumstances with the clearly affectionate cooperation of many colleagues.

Around 50 players, the men in less-formal black suit and tie, thronged the City Recital Hall platform under the sure-footed baton of Brett Weymark to present six intimate and acoustically thrilling excerpts interspersed with chat from Miller himself. In the course of the evening we heard about his musical inspirations, his training and early adventures – even about meeting the “hot redhead” flautist who would go on to be the timpanist’s wife of 44 years and counting. The programme provided additional biographical insights, revealing Miller’s enthusiasms for 20th-century history and politics, Judy Garland (“a genius entertainer and fantastic ‘rhymician’”) and his beloved and purportedly “essential” Atomic cappuccino machine.

The musical “playlist” kicked of with a mighty thwack and the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth, an opportunity for Miller to do a mean impression of Animal from the Muppets as the movement progressed. The percussive Troyte from Elgar’s Enigma Variations followed, Miller’s timps mimicking either the dedicatee’s supposed incompetence on the piano or the effect of being caught with the composer in a thunderstorm. The Marcia from Mozart’s Serenata Notturna gave Miller the chance to debut a pair of ancient kettledrums rescued and restored from a neighbour’s clear-out. His cheeky performance included playing in the manner of a preening 18th-century dandy and even beating a tattoo backwards.

An emotional section followed, with Nicole Youl’s performance of Erbarme Dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a movement of deep personal significance to Miller that clearly left him choked. The Jesuit-schooled timpanist admitted to being staggered with disbelief in his youth that a Protestant could write such music. His ambitious choice of the sublime Good Friday Music from Parsifal was even more revealing as the timpanist reflected on Wagner’s “Reiner Tor” (the pure fool), a figure, like Don Quixote, with whom Miller feels able to identify. On the one hand joking that you only need to see him trying to work a mobile phone to know what he meant, and on the other admitting to the journey musicians often undertake with their peaks and troughs, mistakes and periods of depression, this was a moment of real emotional honesty. “You can become bitter,” Miller said, “or you can allow the music to grow through you. You hear music with the heart, but the heart sometimes learns very slowly.”

Winding up with a series of musical dances from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale allowed Miller to offer some unusual philosophical insights into a composer who apparently wrote the percussion part for himself and related the devil in the Russian folk story to Wagner’s emasculated Klingsor. The performance, which saw Dene Olding’s heroic violin shimmying with Miller’s oily, and ultimately triumphant demon, was a fitting conclusion and elicited a nifty encore in the form of a brassy arrangement of Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm.

Next up is principal cor anglais, Alexandre Oguey. If you want to get to know a bit more about some of the players in your local symphony orchestra, this is a series that can be wholeheartedly recommended.