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Limelight Magazine Review: "From the New World (Sydney Concert Orchestra)"

Sydney’s classical music scene gets a breath of fresh air thanks to a new orchestra, a new composer, and a conductor with an exhilaratingly fresh take on the repertoire. 4/5 Stars Review

by Jansson J. Antmann on 10 December, 2022


Attending the world premiere of a new piece of music is a wonderful way to round out the year. Add to that the inaugural performance of a brand-new orchestra, and one is in for a momentous occasion worth savouring. That is precisely what happened when the newly formed Sydney Concert Orchestra took to the stage of the Verbrugghen Hall at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music last night. And what a debut it was.

Under its founder and Music Director, Omid Moheb Zadeh, the orchestra can boast a marvellously tight string section led by Concertmaster David Carreon, and as John Moon and Charlie Griffith proved, two double basses are more than capable of creating the sound normally associated with eight players in a regular symphony orchestra. The woodwinds and brass provide a burnished sound that would do Wagner proud; the odd rogue note in the brass will be ironed out in time and can easily be heard in even the most accomplished Australian ensembles.

Zadeh works with his orchestra like a painter uses a brush and palette. And like painting, the concert gradually builds up to its apotheosis, beginning first with a sketch in which Zadeh sets down the parameters by which the evening will unfold. From the outset, it is clear this is no strait-laced maestro. Here is an expressionist conductor who kneads a score and draws out its narrative threads, playing with rhythm to accentuate their twists, surprises and inherent emotions.

To demonstrate this, Zadeh couldn’t have chosen a better concert opener than Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, which is perfectly mapped to the plot of Shakespeare’s play. One need only close one’s eyes to see the tiptoeing fairies and hear Bottom’s “eeyores”, which are beautifully rendered by the strings. Zadeh also experiments with phrasing in a way that borders on elision to illustrate the intertwined relationships of the lovers in the magical forest, and the interruptions of the rude mechanicals. Then, when everything has been set to rights, Zadeh becomes far more measured and draws out glorious harmonies, before Robin Goodfellow returns to have the final word and the overture ends as it began, with four resplendent chords from the winds.

The pairing of this piece and Dvořák’s From theNew Worldlater in the evening is an inspired choice. During its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1893, Dvořák’s Ninth was accompanied by Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he wrote in 1842 and includes the iconic wedding march. However, Zadeh has chosen Mendelssohn’s earlier overture, written in 1826 when the composer was just 17 years of age. It beautifully underlines the youthful spirit of the orchestra and, as a precursor to the tone poem, it is a perfect accompaniment for what follows.

For the second work of the evening – the world premiere of A Quiet Mountain – Zadeh hands the baton to its 21-year-old composer Ben Fan, who is also the Assistant Conductor and Orchestral Manager. Written in memory of Fan’s late teacher, mentor and friend, Jon Mountain, it starts off like a meditation and we hear what could be the sound of temple bells chiming. Perhaps it is a reference to Saṃsāra (the Buddhist cycle of life, death and rebirth), or simply the sound of dew drops as we are drawn into a mystical landscape of Fan’s making. All at once, we are struck by the majesty of the mountain he hopes to evoke and, drawing on all the musical forces at his disposal, he paints a symphonic landscape that would make Elgar proud, and Richard Strauss before him. It feels as if we have landed in Albert Bierstadt’s painting Sierra Nevada Morning, with Fan’s undulating score leading us up the mountain path; his shifts from major to minor suggesting sudden turns as we make our way to the apex. It is a most exhilarating journey and the promise of great things to come from this young composer.

After a short interval, Zadeh returns to deliver a masterful reading of Dvořák’s From the New World and simply put, the orchestra nails it. For this writer, there was some trepidation about what to expect. No visit to New York is complete without a walk from Battery Park to Times Square, taking in the various colours of Manhattan and listening to Karel Ančerl’s 1961 recording with the Czech Philharmonic, or Rafael Kubelík conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1972. Wonderful though these go-to recordings are, neither conductor ever seems fully able to shed the Slavic roots that bind them, and both still echo the Bohemian folk tradition that so inspired Dvořák, rather than the African-American spirituals he so admired. In contrast, Zadeh boldly chooses to fully embrace Americana and brilliantly succeeds.

Rather than grounding his treatment of Dvořák’s Ninth in the time it was written – before jazz, Aaron Copland, Florence Price and Richard Rodgers – Zadeh approaches the work with the benefit of hindsight, so that one immediately hears what it would later inspire in Appalachian Springand Rodeo, Price’s First Symphony or even Oklahoma!. After its opening strains, Zadeh ensures that the Largo immediately brings to mind Goin’ Home, which it became in 1922 at the hands of Dvořák’s student William Arms Fisher, and by the time we reach the bombast of the third and fourth movements, we could be listening to Elmer Bernstein’s theme for The Magnificent Seven. Zadeh also adds a touch of syncopation in his reading, jazzing up Dvořák’s symphony in a way the composer may well have wished it to be played, had he lived to see the Jazz Age.

Zadeh’s interpretation of From the New Worldis only possible without the cynicism towards Americana one so often encounters. Judging by last night’s exuberant performance, we should be grateful for such a fresh approach. Prejudice has no place in art, and in a concert held to raise awareness of the plight of Iranian women, such open-mindedness was both exhilarating and apt. It was also a timely reminder that, when done well, classical works can indeed be reinterpreted in a way that is both respectful and relevant.

Recently, more and more “grown-ups” in the industry have been calling for disruption to “save” the classics and attract a more youthful audience. Curiously, on three occasions this year – The Cooperative’s Marriage of Figaro, The Australian Ballet School’s Butterfly and last night’s concert – this writer has had the privilege of seeing emerging artists treat the classical repertoire and technique with greater reverence than their more seasoned counterparts, while obviously deriving pleasure in doing so. Perhaps it is time for the disgruntled, would-be iconoclasts to hand over the reins to the next generation. The future is here, and long may it flourish.


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