With the pandemic changing the way we see and hear live music, arts organisations are having to keep on their feet to meet changing COVID-safe regulations while at the same time staying in business, and the Metropolitan Orchestra have come up with a user-friendly idea for their 2021 season.

With the co-operation of Inner West Council in Sydney they are presenting concerts in smaller venues, closer to their subscriber base, rather than booking larger halls in the CBD. As a bonus the concerts are being live streamed for those who would rather watch them at home.

The Metropolitan OrchestraSarah-Grace Williams and Svetlana Yaroslavskaya with The Metropolitan Orchestra. Photo courtesy of TMO

Artistic director and conductor Sarah-Grace Williams explained that TMO’s pared-back 13th season would feature the orchestra’s string section in five Met concerts, four chamber concerts and three cushion concerts. However, there was nothing scaled down about the program for the season opener in Petersham Town Hall amid the Art Deco simplicity of the main hall with its warm mango yellow and coffee brown décor.

The four works featured a premiere, a dazzling showcase for TMO flautist Svetlana Yaroslavskaya and a symphony by a composer who has slipped into relative obscurity.

The audience, seated two-metres apart in groups of fours, threes, twos and singles, were not required to wear masks in the well-ventilated room with doors open to the street.

The concert opened with Elena Kats-Chernin’s Fast Blue Village 5, related to two existing works, Village Idiot and Fast Blue Air 1 for “robotic” instruments, in a string orchestra arrangement the composer made specifically for this concert. The work features and ever changing motoric 10/8 meter in the lower strings with Baroque-like harmonic figures in the violins, making for a hypnotic mix. Concertmaster Victoria Jacono-Gilmovich kept a tight rein while Caroline Otto drove the cellos and Jeremy Fox the double basses in this bracing opener.

Yaroslavskaya’s virtuosic skills were on display in her spectacular performance of the French flautist François Borne’s Carmen Fantasy, using melodies from Bizet’s smash hit opera. Naturally the Habanera was the star piece, in this instance featuring some tongue-twisting and finger-breaking variations, but one much loved tune followed another in a dazzling 15-minute showreel.

Calm was restored with Australian composer Paul Stanhope’s Morning Star, one of his chamber pieces partly derived from an Aboriginal clan from central Arnhem Land. Otto’s cello led the first of the three continuous movements with a rather lovely simple expression of the song which gives the work its title. The melody becomes fragmented in the second movement before breaking out into an energetic dance-like finale.

Not many of even the most serious music lovers would have heard of the Danish composer Asger Hamerik (1843-1923), whose works include major orchestral and choral pieces, including seven symphonies. A family friend of Hans Christian Andersen, Hamerik made his mark in America where he spent most of his working life as director of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

His sixth symphony, Symphonie Spirituelle, is, as Williams attested, a “terrific work”, one which the orchestra had fallen in love with. Although Berlioz was Hamerik’s primary influence, the symphony’s broad, folk music based opening movement has a Ralph Vaughan Williams feel to it, and its subsequent three movements do not disappoint either.

Williams and the TMO are to be congratulated for unearthing this enjoyable work and if you want to check his works out you can find an excellent survey of his seven symphonies and Requiem by Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on Spotify.

Next up the eight cellists of the TMO perform in Balmain Town Hall on Sunday, 28 March at 3.30pm.

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