Despite the City Circle trains being down (never convenient for a concert at the Sydney Opera House) and it being Sunday night (I’ve decided I’m not a fan of anything being on Sunday night, really), the House was reasonably full for this performance by German-born English composer, Max Richter, performing with members of the Wordless Music Orchestra from New York.

Richter’s music is a bit hard to describe unless you hear it yourself. It’s often referred to as “neo-classical” but this is a strange term, because while it means it’s close to classical music, does it fall into the dreaded crossover basket (that realm inhabited by André Rieu and Andrea Bocelli)? Or is it something that is more respectable?

The answer is, I’m not really sure. Working for the SSO as I do, I have to say they looked a bit different from our regular customers. In fact, I really would have loved to poll the audience and find out, “Who are you? How did you get into this music? What do you normally listen to?”

The answer may be they come from all sorts of musical backgrounds. Richter can certainly get you from a number of angles, being similar to classical music, film music and electronic music. His previous work up till recently was of a more ambient variety, mixing electronic and acoustic instruments together in simple, but quite emotionally powerful ways. (Have a listen to his Memoryhouse album sometime and you’ll hear what I mean.)

The work in the second half of the program was a good example of this kind of work. It was a ballet score called Infra which consisted of an amplified string quintet, Richter on the grand piano, electronics, and a simple but fascinating graphic of stick figures walking backwards and forwards on a black screen above the musicians.

But the first half was the crowd pleaser – the fact is, Richter has hit it out of the park with the piece that opened the concert – his Vivaldi The Four Seasons Recomposed. Almost as if mixed by a DJ (and Richter does stand out the front of the ensemble with his keyboard and Apple laptop at the ready), the Four Seasons Recomposed follows the same pattern of movements as Vivaldi’s original, but each movement is wildly re-jigged.

The genius of it all is that there are enough familiar remnants of the original to make the works instantly familiar, but the emotional effect of what Richter does with each section is entirely original, and some movements are just fantastic.

For example, take the opening movement of Spring. It begins with the bird call motifs from the original piece, played repetitively as a sort of loop or ostinato, but then, underneath, a much slower, more powerful theme begins underneath it. Have a watch:

Oddly enough, what this reminds me most of is a famous piece by Moby that was used at the end of the movie, Heat,  called God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters, which you can have a listen to here to compare:

Two thoughts were with me after this concert:

1) Would modern composers (I’m thinking of the ones whose works actually get performed nowadays by regular classical ensembles) be more popular with the mainstream if there was a little bit more tonality? (I know, I know – it’s almost like a hit and run to drop a comment like that and then not talk more about it …)

2) The Wordless Music Orchestra were good but not absolutely top-notch musically – and yet they won the crowd over. What is it about some performers and performances that can win audiences over on one level, despite technical precision and musicianship not being of the highest calibre? What is it that connects? (Or maybe it’s just that after playing the Richter, the WMO decided to regale the audience – and remember, these guys are from New York – with a rendition of “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS which as well as playing, they actually sang too. How often do you get artists making that kind of nod to the country they are visiting?)

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