Above: Members of the SSO cello and bass sections performing in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Photo credit: Image courtesy of Sydney Symphony orchestra. Photo by Jay Patel. Featured image: SSO Chief Conductor Simone Young. Photo credit: Jaimi Joy.

In the introduction to the SSO’s season brochure for 2022 Simone Young was quoted as saying the orchestra will ‘Take a fresh look at the world’s most moving music and meet the artists whom we are excited to welcome to Sydney’.

Since this season, titled ‘New Beginnings’, and Young’s first as SSO’s Chief Conductor, the refurbished Opera House Concert Hall and audiences have witnessed many exciting moments of interpretative freshness at the hands of this compelling conductor.

Also, many newer programming traditions have started to thrill us in their infancy during the current vibrant period of leadership by Simone Young, such as seasons concluding with a concert version of an opera (Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’, Wagner’s ‘Das Rhinegold’), collaborations with  violinists and pianists and programmes led by guest conductors.

Since Simone Young has graced the SSO stage in Chief Conductor capacity, her exquisite musicianship and European experience has been applied in another tradition, namely a stream of captivating performances of Mahler  for local audiences.

Above: Photo credit: Image courtesy of Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jay Patel.

Crowds have been able to discover afresh Mahler’s inimitable symphonic output. Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony No 2 was heard in the 2022 season to high acclaim. His Symphony No 1 opened the 2023 season for the SSO.

In 2024, audiences have been blown away, and out of their comfort zone or rigid opinions of Mahler. Fresh treatment of the composer’s expressive densities and expansive structure imbued the performance of his Fifth Symphony to open this 2024 SSO Season.

The subtitle of the 2024 concert season is: Living Sound. Find Your Moment. Young’s forward in the season brochure describes this year’s exposure to the SSO as ‘a season of landmarks and large-scale epics’. The Opening Gala concert event and successive performances this week definitely have transformed the live orchestral scene. The word on the ground is that transfixed audience members coming from near and far have had definite take-homes of compellingly beautiful and epic moments they found during concerts.

The freshness of new music in Australian premiere began each concert this week. Also possible for listeners was a new, comfortable digestion of epic, sprawling Mahler. A huge ovation following Simone Young’s athletic, clear interpretation of Mahler’s landmark symphonic music also delivered the new music in a welcome way to audience members.  The living sound on offer had many moments of instant and well-paced impact in which listeners could ecstatically lose themselves in live.

The instrumental forces, musical material and performers were exceptionally well-harnessed by Simone Young. Her total control included  flexibility remaining intact. The sharing of soundscapes and storytelling had a prepared yet spontaneous feel with an air of discovery. This was edge of the seat stuff during both the new music and for the well-known symphonic masterpiece.

The new composition heard alongside the sprawling, monumental Mahler also exuded an energetic momentum that delivered complex textures and emotional undulations clearly. Both programmed works displayed slow-build growth towards climaxes occuring within and between movements.

French violinist Renaud Capuçon reprised his successful 2022 World Premiere, under the baton of  Simone Young, of Camille Pépin’s Violin Concerto: Le Sommeil a pris ton empreinte. In keeping with the emotional intensities of the Mahler for the audience to encounter after interval, this work manipulated orchestral textures, instrumental timbres and traditional interplay on a more compact level compared with the Mahler.

Above: Photo credit: Image courtesy of Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Jay Patel.

The solo violin line moved in and out of the solid undertow from the SSO. Bravura moments, cadenza and dazzling shifts in sonic focus across registers were seamlessly voiced and matched with the orchestral blend by this popular virtuoso. Young and the SSO continued the excitement of this new music event with a concerto structure for our time which surely had many in the crowd interested in more of Pépin’s voice, either in re-listening to this work or discovering deep moments in other of her compositions.

In a profound, fitting prelude to Mahler’s shifting utterances, this twenty minute start to the event was a special concerto experience. It was a beautiful journey, linking a love story, poetry, a creative’s struggles to the concerto tradition.

This celebrated soloist was at all times deeply entrenched within the orchestral motion.  His playing’s directness featured a maintenance of fine sound, solid negotiation of structure and elastic energy.

These features were key in bringing expansive narratives accessibly to life for us. These sharings were gilded by cleverly combined regisers, orchestral tone colors, gently morphing shapes across a tight ensemble arrangement including the celesta’s brightness.

Above: Camille Pépin’s work- ‘Violin Concerto: Le Sommeil a pris ton empreinte.’ was given a well-received Australian Premiere at this concert. Photo credit: Natacha Colmez-Collard.

These elements and requirements were expanded when they were similarly needed throught the same number of movements for the Mahler Fifth. They were displayed during this work on a requisite extended level, needing incredible stamina and mapping from conductor and players.

We also were exposed to a performance of the Mahler which evidenced fit interpretation and playing at every turn. From the opening declamatory trumpet phrases it was clear that a deliberate but never overstated unfolding of atmosphere was going to take us journeying on a seamless swoop through the story, with an elasticity of expression never in danger of losing momentum or slickness of statement.

The funeral hues and stormy elements of the first two movements were extremely solid architecturally. Young’s growing synergy with the orchestra is letting her explore even the most dense music with eloquence and spacious atmospheres. The mood change to restrained song achieved in the Adagietto for strings and harp to open Part Three of Mahler’s work was a contrast I will remember for some time to come.

Likewise the sheer energy, drive and unravelling of the score to give the whole work a compelling conclusion-bound pace and forward arrow in the Rondo-Finale was an astounding section of this concert to witness.  There was a very beautiful, bold bearable lightness of being to the entire rendering of this symphony. This carried the narrative smoothly forward, giving an effective momentum at all times to the challenging work’s climaxes, brooding stillness and programmatic suggestions.

It was a privelege to be lucky enough to hear live this last-century, epic and landmark European classic  so vividly delineated here. The 2024 SSO season, like any well-handled Mahler Symphony, promises to be quite a ride.