SSO Plays Mahler at the Sydney Town Hall

As an organization, which in recent years has staged concerts in the Sydney Town Hall, and will do so again with Handel’s Messiah in November, the Grads  took particular interest in the news that the SSO and Philharmonia Choir, under David Robertson, were to perform Gustav Mahler’s Second  Symphony “Resurrection” in two performances in this grand old building in August.  Your correspondent was interested enough to attend the first of these on Saturday evening 27 August.

The instrumental forces on show were considerable, with some 120 players involved, including 65 strings and 17 woodwind.  There were also 10 horns and 10 trumpets, a good number of whom spent considerable time playing offstage. So this was a much larger orchestra than we deployed in our Verdi Requiem and Christopher .Bowen’s Australian War Requiem performances. The Mahler chorus, at 110 was smaller than ours for Verdi, but the large orchestra imposed a big space problem.

The solution was probably quite expensive but quite ingenious: the first dozen rows of seating in the stalls were removed and replaced by a temporary stage, on which the bulk of the orchestra was seated.  This temporary structure adjoined the choir stalls, which accommodated the chorus and the large timpani/percussion battery.

This temporary arrangement worked very well. The old building’s acoustic is outstanding and the performance looked spectacular. Back in the early 1960s, when Pamela Traynor (sop), the Choir’s Orchestra Manager, and I worked as very young officers in the ABC’s Concert Department and the SSO was an ABC body, the orchestra used to give all its Sydney concerts in the Town Hall. So this Mahler performance was like a pleasant trip down Memory Lane. The orchestra and chorus were excellent and the two female vocal soloists, Kiandra Howarth (sop) and Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo) outstanding.

The performance enabled one to imagine that evening in 1950, when the SSO and the Hurlstone Choral Society (from which the Philharmonia Choirs developed), with Valda Bagnall (sop) and Florence Taylor (alto), gave the Australian premiere of this symphony in the same venue, under the legendary Otto Klemperer. This might appear a little belated for a work that had existed since 1895 but it should be remembered that Mahler’s music, so fashionable these days, was little known until the 1960s. It was kept alive by the efforts of conductors like Klemperer and Bruno Walter, both of whom had worked as assistants to the composer. Leonard Bernstein was a major force in popularising Mahler’s music. Bernstein described his experience of having to promote it to an uncomprehending and unsympathetic Vienna Philharmonic, who had lost connection with it during the Nazi era, when it was banned because of Mahler’s Jewish origin.

The the SSO  Mahler concert confirmed that the Sydney Town Hall is acoustically, visually and historically an outstanding venue for concerts and that the Grads are fortunate to have established a foothold there.

John Bowan

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