• February 13, 2020

A season opener can have many roles. It can be, as Limelight’s Melbourne critic Tony Way once put it, “a rousing manifesto of the organisation’s values and future agenda” or, as Perth critic Laura Biemmi recently described the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s season opener, “a fun array of sunny works and endlessly hummable tunes to gently coax us back into the concert hall”.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s The 1950s Latin Lounge – a sequel, of sorts, to 2018’s A Night at the Speakeasy concerts, evoking the 50s vogue for all things ‘Latin’ – was more the latter than the former, and certainly a different beast to last year’s Season Opening Gala, under the baton of then Chief Conductor David Robertson, which featured a mammoth performance of Percy Grainger’s The Warriors.

Such extravagant forces as were required for the Grainger would not have been possible, however, in the Sydney Town Hall, where the SSO will be based for the next two years while the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall is upgraded. But while this concert, hosted and conducted by the ever-entertaining Guy Noble, boasted taut, rhythmic playing from the orchestra (the brass sound particularly lustrous in this venue) the program felt slightly removed from the orchestra’s core business – the Speakeasy concerts, for example, were a mid-year ‘special event’ offering, separate from the mainstage season – and, in comparison to last year’s high-calorie gala, a little underwhelming despite the upbeat tempos and colourful visuals.

That said, Noble kept the night lively, kicking off with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture – the sound unmistakably Gershwin beneath the borrowed Cuban rhythms – with some wonderfully slinky clarinet from Francesco Celata, the orchestra adorned with red flowers, feathers and pocket handkerchiefs.

Soprano Ali McGregor channelled 1950s Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, the subject of her recent show, in evocative numbers by Peruvian composer and band leader (and Sumac’s husband for a time) Moisés Vivanco. While McGregor – who was also sporting jewellery originally owned by Sumac – admitted to having “a bit of a lurgy” it didn’t prevent her matching the trumpets note for note in the high register or delivering some incredibly shimmering, whistle-like slides into the stratosphere. Her spectacular mambo take on Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria, à la Sumac, had the audience eating out of her hand.

The evening’s other special guest was burlesque performer Imogen Kelly, who first took the stage in fiery feathers, her dance partner a matching bird puppet that would soon nest in front of Noble’s podium. Kelly got plenty of laughs as her tail feathers caressed the SSO’s Principal Cellist Umberto Clerici (“You don’t get that in a Mahler symphony,” quipped Noble) as she spun around on stage to the Spanish composer Ernesto Lecuona’s Jungle Drums, but it was her second act performance that was the highlight: she arrived on stage to the Serenade from Malcolm Williamson’s Our Man in Havana in the wake of a glittering, floating jellyfish and was soon shedding voluminous layer after voluminous layer to unveil a series of fabulous sea creatures.

The band played with gusto, with the resounding drums of Martin Gould’s Conga movement from his Sinfoniette No 4 a particular highlight, while the orchestra clearly relished the opportunity to flex its muscles in the driving Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, which capped off the evening with boisterous élan.

By Angus McPherson of