Reworkings of The Four Seasons never go out of style. Vivaldi’s set of four programmatic violin concertos – ubiquitous in their own right – have been reimagined by the likes of Max Richter, Nigel Kennedy and Australian/British synth-pop string quartet Bond. More recently, Anna Meredith’s ANNO, which intertwines Vivaldi’s concertos with music for string and electronics, was slated for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s 2020 season (before the COVID-19 pandemic forced its cancellation) while this year’s Sydney Festival has already boasted another response to the concertos in Force Majeure’s The Last Season.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs The [Uncertain] Four Seasons at The Headland. Photo © Yaya Stempler
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s The [Uncertain] Four Seasons – which opened Sydney Festival’s outdoor stage The Headland on Barangaroo Reserve after The Pulse was cancelled due to border restrictions – takes Vivaldi’s familiar music as the jumping off point for a sobering message about the impact of climate change.
The SSO’s Concertmaster Andrew Haveron introduces the first concerto with a melancholy cadenza and when the orchestra plays the famous ‘Spring’ melody it is heavy and ponderous, the bird-call flourishes of the violins sparse and jagged-edged – for the simple reason that there are now fewer birds than when Vivaldi penned the concertos in the early 18th century.
A partnership between the SSO, Melbourne composer Hugh Crosthwaite, Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub, design and innovation agency AKQA and German advertising agency Jung von Matt, The [Uncertain] Four Seasons builds on a 2019 project by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra that reworked Vivaldi’s music based on historic climate data. This new version, however, takes the idea one step further, drawing on climate prediction data specific to the location of the performance – what we are hearing is the four seasons of Sydney in 2040, as filmmaker Damon Gameau explains in his introduction.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra performs The [Uncertain] Four Seasons. Photo © Yaya Stempler
While essential elements of Vivaldi’s concertos remain more or less intact – iconic rhythms and melodic contours are, for the most part, immediately recognisable – the harmonies crunch into dissonance and melodies wander outside their traditional tonality, making the familiar strange, and imbuing the concertos with an aesthetic that recalls 20th-century modernism.
Spring’s Largo movement takes on a searing desolation (as do all of the slow movements) that could almost be Shostakovich, while the pastoral dance of the first concerto’s finale becomes a lurching Danse Macabre, an effect enhanced by funereal tubular bells.
Let loose, the orchestra is in its element, revelling in the powerful thrust of the lower strings at the beginning of Summer, the beating of the amplified harpsichord (the excellent Erin Helyard) taking on a synth-like quality in that concerto’s finale, while snare drum brings a martial sense of menace to the ‘harvest’ of Autumn, before the strings shake violently in the Winter cold. Indeed, the winter takes on a brutality that’s shot through only periodically with moments of light, Haveron’s violin crisp and biting.
Andrew Haveron performs The [Uncertain] Four Seasons. Photo © Yaya Stempler
As soloist, Haveron braves the wild weather of these reimagined showpieces to give assured, dextrous performances throughout, bringing brilliance – and, where required, savagery – to the technical passages and a keen pathos and focus to the spare, lyrical passages of the slow movements. A musical storyteller, he carves out a tale of extreme conditions and sparse resources.
On screen, above the players, we read the sonnets that accompanied Vivaldi’s concertos – descriptions of storms lashing crops and plagues of insects remain timely – alongside shifting, abstract visuals that evoke time lapse photography of arid landscapes and evaporating water, from which suggestions of faces emerge and recede.
While this is a Four Seasons very much altered, what’s striking is how durable the Vivaldi is beneath it all, and how much terror is painted into the weather events of the original. What we end up with here is a distorted, rather than decimated, landscape. The changes are more subtle than might be expected, a sense of ongoing decay more than climate apocalypse – and they feel somehow inadequate to describe the decimation of wilderness and wildlife that has occurred so far, let alone by 2040. I wonder, therefore, if allowing the changes wrought by the climate data to affect more different elements of the music would result, through a greater rift with the original works, in a more dramatic statement. But, as Gameau explains, the world pictured here through music is 2040, if we don’t act – perhaps it’s important to recognise that there is still a path back to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, if we are willing to take it.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s The [Uncertain] Four Seasons is at The Headland, Barangaroo Reserve, as part of Sydney Festival until January 13