A sparkling account of Emmanuel Chabrier’s España Rhapsody opened last night’s Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert with festive joy. This year is David Robertson’s swan song season as Artistic Director, so he’s been pulling out all the stops, but yesterday was also his birthday, and to celebrate he was breaking out the musical bubbly – all of it French, naturally.

Susan Graham, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Vienna Fornolles

Robertson’s reading of España – inspired by Chabrier’s Spanish holiday in 1882 and establishing a vogue for Spanish flavours in the music of other French composers like Ravel and Debussy – was charming and effervescent, with just a hint of mystery. From the taut pizzicatos of the opening, to castanet-like bouncing bows and some brilliant sectional showcases – the quartet of bassoons, the trio of trombones – Robertson made sure this music was a party right to the cracking final chords.

Robertson ushered in a more intimate mood following the Chabrier, joined by American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham – a frequent collaborator with whom he celebrated a combined birthday in 2017 when Graham last joined the SSO for Mahler’s Third Symphony (her own birthday is in a few days) – for a gorgeous selection from Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. Graham’s is a powerful instrument – an easy match for her orchestral partner – wielded with sensitive refinement, but she’s also a charismatic, even irresistible, communicator. She practically caressed the “lèro lèro”s of the opening Bailèro (Shepherd’s Song) with her refulgent mezzo, over harp-like figures from the piano, as each verse blossomed. She brought a playful cheekiness to Chut, chut (Hush, hush) and agile humour to the ludicrous Lou coucut (The Cuckoo) while she was heartbreaking in numbers like La Delaïssádo (Abandoned), Uno jionto pastouro (A Pretty Shepherdess), and finally softly entreating in Brezairola (Lullaby). She didn’t flinch when a loud bang (a light blowing?) had some of the musicians glancing nervously skyward. Not that they missed a beat either, the orchestra led by guest concertmaster Natalie Chee – who heads up the SWR Symphony Orchestra, Stuttgart, and will remain in the country for the upcoming Australian World Orchestra concerts – who proved a sensitive, colourful duo partner. There were wonderful wind solos throughout – oboe in the Bailèro, cor anglais in La Delaïssádo – while Chee joined oboist Diana Doherty and the jingling percussion of Rebecca Lagos to lead a boisterous folk band in Malurous qu’o uno fenno (Unhappy he who has a wife).

Robertson was joined by another guest for the second half of the concert, the Master of Music at St George’s Cathedral, Perth, organist Joseph Nolan, suspended high above the orchestra in the Concert Hall’s organ loft for Camille Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony – the ‘Organ’ Symphony. It’s the work that prompted Gounod to dub Saint-Saëns “the French Beethoven” and while the colours are all Saint-Saëns, there are echoes of Beethoven’s Ninth in the darkness to light structure that ultimately explodes into a chorale by an orchestral intruder (in this case organ rather than choir). But the symphony also owes a debt to Liszt, Saint-Saëns employing the composer’s principle of thematic transformation. There are seeds of what will become the finale’s mighty chorale – a melody well-known as the 1978 hit pop song If I Had Words (itself best known recently for its use in the Babe film soundtrack) – in the opening section, which was given plenty of space, expertly paced under Robertson’s baton. While there is plenty of joy in the music’s fervid strings and fleet-footed winds, Robertson – and Nolan, when he joined – paid careful attention to Saint-Saëns’s more contemplative moments, which made the drama and energy of the second section, with its crashing organ and glimmering piano four-hands, feel satisfyingly well-earned. The fugue was thrilling and Nolan and Robertson didn’t hold back on the blazing final chords. A birthday celebration to remember.