Add symphonic music to the list of Australian exports that could make it big here, after crocodile wrestlers and beer in outsized cans. Sunday afternoon, the Sydney Symphony made its U.S. debut, launching a 13-concert tour celebrating the Australian Bicentennial with a high-impact performance at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
According to its own publicity, the Sydney Symphony is Australia's major orchestral establishment, a claim supported with well-drilled, explosive playing Sunday. Led by native son Stuart Challender, the ensemble revealed a very bright, wind-dominated sound--characteristics exaggerated by overplaying the acoustically lively Segerstrom Hall.
After sending out a concertmaster--the orchestra employed two Sunday--to lead both the American and Australian national anthems, Challender began with Carl Vine's Second Symphony. A new work by the 34-year-old composer, the compact, eclectic piece offers a little something for everyone, and quite a lot for admirers of Stravinskyan rhythmic zest and orchestral pizazz.
Vine's effort was undermined at points by resort to film-score cliches of the "Star Wars" school, but Challender and Co. supported it at every turn with big, bold playing. Balances and intonation suffered at times in this free-wheeling approach, but the sense of spontaneity it created more than compensated.
Challender took a similarly outgoing, headlong approach to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. He wrung every lyrical drop from the Andante cantabile and imbued the Waltz with courtly, kinetic life, in a reading notable for drama as well as velocity.
The program also featured the U.S. debut of young Australian mezzo Elizabeth Campbell, and there it took a turn towards sophisticated introspection. Campbell sang five of Mahler's Ruckert Lieder with a clear, supple voice of both steel and radiance, and a wonderfully pointed feeling for line. Challender backed her with a subtle, fluid accompaniment.
The large audience applauded at every opportunity, legitimate or not. The visitors rewarded the sustained response at the end with Bernstein's "Candide" Overture in encore.