Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
July 7, 2016

The concert hall was plunged into darkness for the world premiere of Ross Edwards’ new concerto for alto saxophone and percussion, Frog and Star Cycle. A soft drone from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lothar Koenigs, accompanied the birth of creation – percussion soloist Colin Currie’s djembe drumming the universe into existence from off-stage in his role as Shaman. As the universe emerged from the void, Currie entered from stage right, dressed in blue jeans and a lurid t-shirt depicting an Indian goddess (Durga?), his face painted in stripes. His djembe thundered, the chaos of the natural world depicted in the orchestra thriving under his spiritual ministrations.

The lights came up for the Consecration Dance, ­Currie pounding driving rhythms as he dashes between drums and glockenspiel. In white dress and floral crown, saxophonist Amy Dickson entered as the Earth Spirit, the lights fading to green. Sacred Waters, saw Currie dipping his hand into an amplified tub of water – a light splashing and gurgling over the rumble of a deep pedal from the contrabassoon – before the sound of Dickson’s soft, throaty sax crept out of the lingering resonance of the glockenspiel. Dickson traced a sinuous line, with a hint of blues, the orchestra providing colour while Dickson propelled the music forward.

In Interplay, Shaman and Earth Spirit were equal partners, Currie’s marimba chasing and playing off Dickson’s sax. The stage was darkness once more for To the Morning Star, Dickson’s sax line quoting the opening notes of the Latin hymn Ave Maria Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea) – the star of the title– Currie’s celesta sprinkling the strings and sax with a glittering sheen of notes.

The cycles of night and day continued, the sax dancing exotic lines, muted horns crying like frogs, and material from Edwards’ Mass of the Dreaming enhancing the sense of spiritual ceremony and natural wilderness. Rather than simply accompanying, this concerto saw the orchestra expanding and augmenting the power of the soloists, echoes from the saxophone rippling through the ensemble like waves. The final movement is a Transcendental Dance, Currie and Dickson embracing a playful freedom. Edwards colourful, vibrant concerto reflects the vastness of the universe – the cycles of night and day, dark and light, birth and death feel like they could spin for eternity. The music drives forward but there is no real sense of a destination – a powerful metaphor for existence, but it leaves the listener searching for finality.

Koenigs opened Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – another work to explore the spiritual realm – with brisk energy, the famous sleigh bells a distant menace. With precise attention to detail Koenigs deftly negotiated the hills and valleys of Mahler’s Mozartian theme, allowing it to blossom in surges of Romantic expression, and expertly handled the mercurial moods of this symphony.

Concertmaster Dene Olding’s angular folk-fiddling cut through the orchestra like a razor in the second movement and Shefali Pryor’s oboe lines were a highlight, from the first movement’s lyrical line, melting into the violins, to the beautiful trio for oboe, cor anglais and horn in the devastating third movement. Following the excruciatingly beautiful ending of the third movement, exquisitely paced by Koenigs, the innocence of the fourth brought a sigh of relief from the audience. A setting of text from Das Knaben Wunderhorn depicting a child’s fairy-tale vision of heaven, the movement features several farmyard scenes, including oxen-lowing from the double bass – a particularly fine and resonant animal. The soloist, soprano Sylvia Schwartz’s voice was all smooth edges and warm refulgence, her diction clear and sound unforced. If at times the power of the orchestra threatened to overwhelm, her voice was never lost.

Edwards’ Frog and Star Cycle was a fascinating, glittering depiction of creation – a fine balance to Mahler’s touchingly innocent afterlife. Soloists Dickson and Currie played their parts as Earth Spirit and Shaman with vigour, and with the SSO in top form, they created a journey through light and dark that was as exciting visually as it was aurally.

Sounds of Heaven is at the Sydney Opera House until July 11