Pictures at an Exhibition (Sydney Symphony Orchestra)
By Phillip Scott
July 19, 2018

Mussorgsky’s piano work Pictures At An Exhibition has been orchestrated several times, including by the conductors Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leopold Stokowski, but the orchestration commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky in 1930 from Maurice Ravel is still the preferred version. No one else has had a better idea than using alto saxophone for the solo in The Old Castle. The piece is well known, consisting of impressions of the pictures Mussorgsky saw at a memorial exhibition for his friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann. The musical portraits are often (but not always) separated by a memorable Promenade theme.

In this concert, visiting conductor Giancarlo Guerrero began at a stately pace, and separated the various sections of the work with longer pauses than usual: a panoramic view, if you like. I thought the earlier “pictures” lacked edge (notably the children in the Tuileries, and the menacing Gnomus), but later the performance caught fire with an especially well-shaped Two Polish Jews and Baba Yaga, both played with great precision and attack. Guerrero’s ladies in the Limoges marketplace were definitely arguing, not merely gossiping!

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture is a difficult work to make hang together – it too is beset by pauses – and it felt particularly fragmentary in this performance. The pluses were excellent solo playing, notably from the principal cello and trombone, and Guerrero’s fine ear for balancing orchestral colour.

Arguably the finest performance was that of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto by the American composer Jennifer Higdon. Structured as a series of statements that begin simply and grow increasingly elaborate, the work is packed with fascinating sonorities. Higdon is renowned for her orchestration. The SSO players relished the chance to shine, as in the vast tutti following the soloist’s first movement cadenza. Above all, the concerto is a virtuoso showpiece (composed for Hilary Hahn), and proved a magnificent vehicle for the young American violinist Benjamin Beilman. His playing was accurate (in the many difficult fast passages), exciting, astonishing in fact, deeply affecting in the second movement, Chaconni, and exhilarating in the moto perpetuo finale, Fly Forward.

It is rare for me to feel the urge to hear the same program for a second time, but I would in this case. Beilman is a star and we will hear more from him, hopefully in the Sibelius or Shostakovich concertos – or anything he likes. And let’s hear more of Jennifer Higdon’s music too. We can thank David Robertson for encouraging this kind of bracing programming; too bad 2019 is his final year at the SSO helm. (The 2019 program was launched last night, and it looks very enticing.)

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