Gutsier, confident sounds under the baton of James Ross

SOSL Guest Conductor Concert 2010 at Ladies’ College Hall on February 20 -- reviewed by A.S.H. Smyth

The players emerge from the wings. They take their seats. They tune. The conductor enters, taps his baton, and – what is this boisterous melody? Whence these vital strains? It’s the National Anthem!
The SOSL are hardly unrecognisable since I last heard them (October 2009); but substantial changes have been wrought. Amid the drifting indecision, ragged phrasing and basic stagecraft glitches that 53 seasons of performing ought to have ironed out, something fundamental has gone right.

Whether symptom or cause, Beethoven’s ‘Ah perfido!’ concert aria was just right for the opening number. From the off, under the determined but realistic direction of guest conductor James Ross, the cellos were gutsier, the woodwind sweeter, the brass more stern.

Entries were confident. Obvious pitfalls were not routinely blundered into. The first half was made, though, by the vocal offerings of soprano Sara Jonsson. In the concert aria she did what every singer ought, which is make you believe you’re actually at the opera house. And throughout, her clarion voice did what no singer should reasonably be expected to do, which is dominate the Ladies’ College non-acoustic.

James Ross

I’m no great fan of Cavalleria rusticana – back home I actually live in the countryside and I can assure you this tale of murder and high-octane affairs isn’t really representative (perhaps you have to be Italian?) – but Mascagni and his ilk are right up SOSL’s street. The ‘Intermezzo’ was a little heavy on the bass (intimations of Dvorak), but far rather that than ten minutes of soupy strings/stringy soup. ‘Voi lo sapete’ (also Cav.) had great fire on the top notes – from both Jonsson and players – but wound up with an embarrassing silence when the audience didn’t realise it was finished. Wherein we find a moral concerning the performance of excerpts.

‘Dich teure Halle’ is from Tannheuser, one of Wagner’s more listener-friendly operas – i.e. before he went nuts and tried to write The Complete Opera Of The Universe. The more hectic bars of the preamble strained the cohesion of the strings, but otherwise it went well, Jonsson’s explosive delivery capturing the mercurial moods of her subject/character. Mega applause for the Wagnerienne and calls for encore.

And lo! The we-thought-you’d-ask prepared bonus number – ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi (Puccini) – was well chosen, and very much of a piece with the Mascagni. Less well performed, though: Jonsson sounded hurried and the strings unconfident, for which they compensated by playing too loudly. A pity; but, again, material SOSL should perhaps make more of in future.

Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony is a powerful – even Superpowerful – work, invoking the horrors of not one but two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Possibly it is more difficult to listen to than to play (certainly the audience had their game-faces on), but I would never, frankly, have tipped the SOSL to perform this piece.

But it was good. Not electrifying; but right. Growling, ominous double-basses, eerie cello melodies, agitated violins – and the despairing anti-climax was spot on. One or two fractionally mistimed entries were, in the often-frenzied texture, all but unnoticeable, and it seemed that by effectively turning themselves into a string orchestra (thereby eliminating their chiefest problem, that of coordinating and balancing wind and strings), the SOSL may just have pulled it off. Congratulations to whomever was the brains – not to mention the cojones – behind attempting this.

If most overtures run the risk, musically speaking, of giving the game away, Beethoven’s Leonora No. 3 gives the game away, provides a full break-down of the match stats, and accurately predicts the results of the next round. Hence its being removed from Leonora/Fidelio – as too damned evocative.

In a commendably full-blooded rendition, the only real let-down was the brass. The offstage trumpet was martial and sweet, with just enough ring in the bell to demonstrate he was giving it some. But the other brass interjections were unclean and tended to crash about in the texture like a tuba-player in a china shop. The horns, at one-point, were so disunited and limp that they sounded, flatly, like bagpipes.

A concert book-ended by Beethoven (alliteration alert!) was a nice idea, and I enjoyed the neat, and obviously intentional, irony in pairing ‘perfido’ (faithless) with Fidelio (faithful one). Ending with the overture, though? That might be considered pushing one’s luck.

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