SSO, Dutoit, not Argerich but Wang

On Saturday to the SOH to hear the SSO, conducted by Charles Dutoit.

The program was:

Stravinsky, Funeral Song
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No 1
de Falla, 2 suites from The Three-cornered Hat and
Ravel, La Valse.

For the concerto, Martha Argerich, originally slated to appear (for the third time for the first time in Sydney) was (yet again) a late scratching, this time replaced by Yuja Wang. Wang has probably been able to make a bit of a career out of stepping in when MA has cancelled.

Because of the Argerich factor, the SSO had hiked up the prices. In response, and bearing in mind the MA-no-show risk, I pegged down my seating reserve. At about the same price for my usual rear-stalls spot I was in Box Y at the side of the stage, diagonally behind YJW’s left shoulder.

Empty seats were conspicuous in the more expensive areas. Had I paid such top dollar, I too would have been tempted to return my ticket, which is just about the only recourse the orchestra allows. If there was a chance to buy tickets at a now reduced price (or to trade “up”, as I might have) they certainly weren’t advertising it.

What that really means is that the orchestra toughs it out on the laziness tax against everyone else who has paid the premium price on what was always (as the orchestra surely knew) a chancy prospect. That included me, and to be frank I felt a bit grumpy about that.

I wouldn’t want always to sit at the side, but it does have some benefits. There is a loss of balance and in particular of the frontal projection from the violins and the soloist/s. The gain is that you are much closer and the sound comes to you directly rather than bounced around the hall, so that what you do hear you hear much more clearly. And there is a big gain for the woodwind – often missing in action even in the rear stalls. Once you adjust for the diminished front it is like seeing and hearing the orchestra in cross-section.

This was particularly rewarding in the Stravinsky – a recently rediscovered early work for which I was totally unprepared. The big surprise was the obvious influence of Wagner. Alex Ross in the New Yorker gives the most succinct list of the Wagnerian elements (which are not confined to Siegfried’s Funeral March).

From my cross-sectional vantage point the bit I most liked was a kind of undulating accompaniment figure which emerges at about 6:30 in the youtube version (there is more than one) of last year’s second performance conducted by Gergiev in Leningrad/St Petersburg.

The Gergiev version sounds different from Dutoit and the SSO’s as I recall it, especially in mood, which in Sydney was more sombre than the recording comes across. There is surely an intrinsic interest in hearing different approaches to such a “new” work. It would be nice if the SSO’s performance could be available for a while on ABC “Classic” FM’s “Listen Again” facility. Given that P&M is already up there, I can only presume there is some rights obstacle to this.

In the Beethoven, what I was particularly able to see was how Dutoit energised the orchestral accompaniment figures, especially in the first movement. I was also in a good spot for Mr Celato’s clarinet solo in the middle movement. This movement was probably the high point of the Beethoven. People behind me said it was very slow. I honestly wouldn’t know. What with the clarinet and all I was most of all feeling how Mozartean it was.

It wasn’t the best spot to hear the piano sound, but when it came to the encores, starting with the Prokofiev Toccata, I had an extraordinary view of every muscle and bone in Yuja Wang’s back courtesy of her (almost) backless dress. It was like an anatomy lesson or one of those films of the inside of a big pipe organ at work. Wang’s other encores were the Rachmaninov Vocalise and the Horowitz variations on the gypsies’ song in Carmen.

I enjoyed The Three Cornered Hat without being particularly blown away by it – I’d say that’s the work rather than the performance, which was predictably brilliant. La Valse, for me, is a more compelling and made a great finale.

Afterwards I spoke to a couple (well, friends, but two of them) who, like me, had also come the week before for Pelléas et Mélisande. They enjoyed this concert more and I expect that is the taste of most of the SSO public. As for me, it is the Debussy which is still resonating most and I expect it to do so for a while.

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