Max Richter and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall on Saturday, 3rd June. Jude Durrant reviews.
Pianist and composer Max Richter, known for his neoclassical, electronic ambient music, recruited the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to share some pieces from his back catalogue in the Sydney Opera House’s newly enhanced Concert Hall for Vivid LIVE.
Arriving on stage to a warm welcome, Richter explained the first piece, ‘Testament’, was a tribute to Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki who died in 2020. Richter took up his position at the piano – he also had an electronic keyboard – and, with the orchestra, began this mesmerising journey for us.
English soprano Grace Davidson featured in ‘The Waves: Tuesday’, her voice an exquisite instrument in this piece, part of a work inspired by novelist Virginia Woolf. The music was prefaced by a reading of Woolf’s last words to her husband, Leonard, before she took her own life.
The mood was a little compromised by late audience members making their way to their seats, but it was a powerful piece regardless, and Richter didn’t blink an eye at the comings and goings. He’s no doubt used to having a restless audience – for Vivid LIVE 2016 he, with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Grace Davidson, performed his eight-hour epic, Sleep, surrounded by people on stretcher beds.
A repeat performance of Sleep is a feature of this year’s Dark Mofo with the event starting at 11pm on Wednesday, 14th June, beds provided. We got a taste of Sleep with ‘Dream 19’ – from about four and a half hours in, he told us. With just Richter’s piano, a lone cellist and a violinist, this was a somnambulant treat. I was sure I could feel the earth slowly revolving and imagine the starry night sky outside. With cosmic irony, someone’s phone alarm went off right at the end telling us it was time to wake up.
The second half saw Davidson return to add her perfectly-pitched angelic voice to ‘Arbenita (11 Years)’ from Richter’s 2002 debut album Memoryhouse – another goosebumpy experience for a now very still audience.
‘Exiles’, written in response to the Syrian refuge crisis, was the longest piece of the night. Richter began with a quiet 16-note piano melody that continued through the entire piece. He was joined in synch by the marimba, vibraphone and one of the two harps, giving the motif real depth as we imagined the refugees’ long sad journey. The sounds from the rest of the orchestra gradually intensified and gained momentum, reaching a crescendo that was relieved by the low boom of the bass drum.
The audience were on their feet after ‘Exiles’, offering the sort of cheering and whooping that you’d expect to hear at a rock gig as Richter, Davidson, the SSO and conductor Matthew Lynch took their bows.
An unadvertised encore received another hearty round of applause. What followed was Richter’s most famous and recognisable composition, ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’, which has been used in many films and TV shows including Shutter Island and The Handmaid’s Tale.
It was the perfect way to end what was a night I’ll long remember. The Concert Hall’s modern cathedral-like atmosphere is an ideal setting for Richter’s avant-garde take on classical music, so I’m sure he’ll be invited back.