Concert reviews Donald Runnicles Protecting Veil Sydney Symphony


It was a full house in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House last night as far forward as the boxes at the sides of the stage. Many young faces were spotted in the audience, which is lovely to see at any classical music concert. Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles and featured British international concert cellist Matthew Barley in a highly diverse program curated by Runnicles for Easter.

The first half of the concert was the title work, “The Protecting Veil”, by contemporary composer John Taverner. (He is not to be confused with at least two other composers called John Taverner from earlier centuries.) Described as “deeply spiritual”, Taverner based The Protecting Veil around a celebration from his beloved Orthodox Church called “The Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God.” This feast commemorates a vision of Mother Mary from the early 900’s – yes we’re talking 1100 years ago – who appeared in an Orthodox Church surrounded by angels. Mary’s apparition prayed and then spread her veil over those who witnessed her appearance in the church. They took this to mean she would protect the local Greeks who were about to be attacked by a Saracen army (allegedly from Arabia). The Greeks heard of the vision which gave them the confidence to defeat the Saracens and send them packing.

Taverner was originally commissioned to write an 8 minute piece for cellist Steven Isserlis for the BBC Proms and instead, according to Barley, Taverner presented Isserlis with this 45 minute work, still within the given deadline. Barley said Taverner had been listening to a lot of traditional Indian music at the time of writing which influenced the work.

In the composition, the solo cello is often very simple, using Byzantine tones, creating the meditative quality often used as description for the work. The simplicity gives the soloist plenty of room for interpretation. In the background, the string ensemble amplifies, mirrors and extends the melodies of the solo cello. At times, their orchestration seemed to pick up a whiff of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.

During a reset of the orchestra seating between program items later in the evening, Runnicles and Barley came out on stage with microphone in hand to speak about the work, a pleasant way to fill the gap. Barley said he had personally worked with the Taverner on this piece which is a rare gift considering Taverner has since passed away in 2013.

Barley’s playing was wonderful as he demonstrated great knowledge and familiarity of the work. The tone and clarity of performance was outstanding. We’d love to hear Barley in more classical works in the future.

The Protecting Veil is an extremely challenging work to play as the cello never stops. For many in the crowd it was a challenge to listen to as well. The work is filled with descending slides which deepen further, reaching down the scale as the work goes on, dragging the frequency or vibration down with very little relief in terms of light or hope.

We can often expect dark works around the theme of Easter though the work seemed to polarise the audience. Some found it “beautiful” and, for others, it was too much. Starting off with a full house, there were empty seats in each row in the stalls and each box in the circle after interval. This is a pity as the second half was completely different in tone and mood.

After interval, Runnicles was able to express his love of Wagner operas by including a short instrumental piece from Parsifal “Good Friday Spell”. The musicians relaxed and started smiling and swaying, even when they weren’t playing. The audience perked up and showed their appreciation during the applause.

The final work for the concert was a wonderful Symphony no. 5 by Felix Mendelssohn. A bold and bright work with full orchestra written when Mendelssohn was only in his 20s to celebrate the Protestant Reformation. On stage, there was plenty of fun for the brass and woodwind sections who received their own acknowledgement at the close of the piece. The majority of the work held a positive overtone and the four movements seemed to pass surprisingly quickly.

Summing up, it was a generally unpopular program performed by superb musicians and conductor.


The Protecting Veil (1988) – John Taverner
Parsifal Act III: Good Friday Spell (1882) – Richard Wagner
Symphony no. 5 in D minor Op. 197 “Reformation” (1830) – Felix Mendelssohn

Related classical music links

Sydney Symphony Orchestra website:
More about conductor Donald Runnicles:
More about cellist Matthew Barley:
What’s next at the Sydney Opera House? :


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