SYDNEY — On paper, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s program for its September Master Series concerts (Sept. 6-9) promised a night of fireworks. John Adams’ exuberant Short Ride in a Fast Machine — one of the top-10 orchestral pieces performed across the globe and the third most-performed fanfare in the United States — shared the stage with the Australian premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto, featuring Nicola Benedetti in her Australian debut, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Yet, with pulsing minimalism, a virtuosic violin concerto (with Marsalis in the room, no less), and Stravinsky’s full-bodied score in store, the crackers failed to ignite.
A Short Ride in A Fast Machine was destined to die from around the second or third bar. The work was inspired by the idea of riding in a sports car, and by Adams’ own directive, the audience listens in “to experience that fundamental tick.” The key to the fanfare lies in the insistent, metronomic, and fortissimo pulse of the woodblock. The metronomic value is everything. In this case, and for a strange reason, the percussionist’s pulse began at one tempo, but by the fourth bar, conductor Karen Kamensek shifted it slightly faster by increment. Once the pulse shifts, so does our connection. It’s like a pit stop we aren’t expecting.
While the defining woodblock was definitely not pitched to the full-bodied fortissimo we’re accustomed to, what was more egregious — and, in fact, sad — was the overall tempo of the work. Short Ride in a Fast Machine usually runs around four and a half minutes. Kamensek’s interpretation lasted around five, but it felt like six or more. This failure-proof piece, which normally energizes with adrenalin, became a lame version of itself, with the weaving layers of harmonic interest created by its sectional design lacking direction and contextualization.
By any measure, A Short Ride in A Fast Machine is standard repertoire. It was written in 1986, but on this night, the musicians were reading the rhythms in such a square-mannered, old-world classical paradigm that the score lost most of its familiar groove, with its polyphony forced rather than felt.
The inability to find authentic elasticity in jazz rhythms prevailed in the Sydney Symphony’s accompaniment of Marsalis’ Violin Concerto, written expressly for friend and collaborator Benedetti. She takes full custody of the 40-minute work, whose world premiere she gave in 2015 with the London Symphony Orchestra under James Gaffigan. It’s a challenging concerto because it demands that the violinist is a virtuoso who’s able to seduce the listener on a poetic and visual strolling dream. Benedetti indemnifies the success of the work. When Marsalis calls for high-tessitura pianissimo playing, Benedetti delivers. When Marsalis asks for intense and longing legatos, Benedetti prevails beautifully.
The concerto can be described as a once-upon-a-time story that takes us through reminiscenses of New Orleans jazz, blues, Scottish jigs, African gumbo, and a Mardi Gras party. The musical references are not written in a literal manner. Marsalis locates the germane seed of each sound world and rhapsodizes it. The themes manifest ghost-like motives. That there are too many of them is the distraction of the piece.
The ultimate version of this concerto depends on the orchestra, conductor, and soloist feeling their way together through the multiple moods and textures of a deliberately opaque soundscape. At this performance, Benedetti did all she could to coax both herself and the orchestra to rise to the occasion.
For Stravinsky’s Firebird, the performance was sustained by the orchestra’s ever-sturdy, ever-ebullient brass section and its dependable, harmonious double-bass section. Firebird relies on offering listeners an abundance of colors. Without sets and dancers in tow, we must feel the balletic vignettes play out in our imagination. This performance was fine enough, but it wasn’t until the appearance of the Firebird that the piece began to activate our senses.
All in all, there’s something heartbreaking about expecting fireworks that don’t eventuate.