Sydney Symphony Orchestra has returned to the Sydney Opera House, albeit for a scaled down Cocktail Hour concert in the intimate surrounds of the 200-seater Utzon Room when 10 musicians performed a heavily Romantic mixture of Grieg and Tchaikovsky.

Associate Concertmaster Sun Yi. Photograph courtesy of  Sydney Symphony Orchestra

For the players it must have been a nostalgic trip back home having been locked out of the Concert Hall since 2019 while it undergoes its $200 million refurbishment. For the audience it was a chance to watch the musicians from a few metres away, seeing them work and hearing them breathe, rather than looking through the wrong end of a telescope in a vast auditorium.

The two works on the program, Grieg’s String Quartet No 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence – more often heard with a full orchestra – made for a heady mixture accompanied by a complimentary glass of wine.

The anguished opening chords of the Grieg work bear out the composer’s words to a friend that this quartet “is not intended to bring trivialities to the market”, and the four SSO players, led by Claire Herrick, brought a resonant but nicely nuanced attack and some fine ensemble work to the opening movement, with its dark mood and agitation perhaps inspired by the dramas of the composer’s marriage to the singer Nina Hagerup, who was rumoured to have had an affair with Grieg’s brother.

The second movement features a lovely tune – cellist Timothy Nankervis was on point – before another sudden switch of mood.

Marianne Edwards on second violin and Rosemary Curtin’s viola provided the inner voices and heft for the final movement with its surprisingly progressive harmonies and rhythms inspired by Norwegian folk fiddle tunes. Although Debussy dismissed Grieg’s music as “pink bonbons filled with snow”, there’s a lot to be said for the theory that this Grieg quartet inspired the Frenchman’s more famous work.

Associate Concertmaster Sun Yi led the sextet in a superlative performance of Souvenir de Florence, which Tchaikovsky completed three years before he died. Chamber music writing didn’t come easily to Tchaikovsky but although the work is more familiar in its string orchestra form it works superbly with six instruments – two violins, two violas, cello and bass.

Sun Yi ran a tight ship in the irrepressible opening movement with Wendy Kong’s violin and the twin violas of Leonid Volovelsky and Amanda Verner providing sterling support, underpinned by Kristy Conrau’s cello and David Campbell’s bass.

A highlight of this work is the beautiful adagio cantabile where the singing tune turns into a duet between cello and first violin against a mandolin-like plucked accompaniment – perhaps the most “Italian” moment in an otherwise very Russian work.

The Cocktail Hour series marks a welcome return to the Opera House while the main concerts continue throughout 2021 in Sydney Town Hall. Next up will be quartets by Mozart and Shostakovich at 6pm on 11 & 12 June.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Tchaikovsky & Greig in the Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House on 1 May at 6pm

Supported by the City of Sydney

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