When the Frenchman Edgard Varèse (1883-1965) arrived in America in 1915, he was overwhelmed by the urban energy of New York. In this brash new country he left his French ways behind, except for a Debussyan interest in sonority (although far from Debussy’s style or taste). Instead, in several orchestral works of which Amériques was the first, he channelled the power, chaos and shock factor of the modern world.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton MarsalisDavid Robertson conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Photo © Tim Skinner

Breaking new ground in his writing for brass and especially percussion, Varèse created orchestral textures that composers of film noir movie scores would appropriate decades later. The pile-driving rhythms and “blocks of sound” in Amériques epitomise the Machine Age of the 1920s and 30s: it’s as if Varèse found a middle way between music (which his father forbade as a career) and engineering (which his father approved of). Leopold Stokowski conducted the work’s premiere in 1926, but the composer revised it two years later, and it was this revision we heard tonight. David Robertson is notably good at keeping such musical mosaics together. Under his direction the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was at its most tightly disciplined and exciting.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton MarsalisWynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performing with the SSO. Photo © Tim Skinner

Even more thrills came in the second half of the concert. Joining the orchestra were the 15 members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: rhythm, a brass section and a reed section. Wynton Marsalis himself, the great jazz and classical trumpeter, was among them to play his 40-minute orchestral work The Jungle (Symphony No 4). The jungle of the title is urban, because this piece is also inspired by New York City. In fact it begins with remarkably similar pile-driving rhythms to Varèse’s work, but it soon becomes clear that Marsalis’s symphony speaks of the Afro-American urban experience. Just about every form of jazz is referenced, from stride piano to the cool 1950s vibe of the Sauter-Finegan Big Band, Basie’s big brass statements, Broadway jazz such as Rodgers’ Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, Latin jazz, and I’m sure I heard a nod to the historic Afro-American symphonist William Grant Still.

The symphony’s six-movement form is fairly loose, in order to give room for the soloists to shine. All of them – not just Marsalis himself – are exceptionally impressive musicians. Even so, the score is much more than a showcase and far from simplistic. Marsalis is a true composer: those passing influences are incorporated into a coherent whole, rhythmically dynamic and often surprising in its unique orchestral textures. Again Robertson led a vigorous performance and kept the Sydney musicians on their toes, especially the strings.

This was a special concert, and not the kind of program we hear often. If you get the opportunity to go, grab it!


The Sydney Symphony and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is at the Sydney Opera House until February 25

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