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Photo by Daniel Boud


With Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs

Sydney Opera House, December 8

A low humming drone of strings over which the solemn suggestion of pain was reflected in the gaunt face and hollowed eyes of Guy Pearce, before it was made “real” in the rage of the horns and timpani.

The undercurrent of warmth and connection, even under a foretaste of tension, played through a man and boy trudging on and on across a landscape for which post-apocalyptic seems inadequate, only to explode in a maelstrom of trombones, guitar and desperate camera movement.

Graffitied walls and storefronts more empty than the open fields either side of a long streak of road, as piano and violin intersected like rock being washed over by a strong stream.

Far from distracting, or cheapening the impact of Nick Cave and Warren Elllis’ compositions for the screen as “proper” music for an orchestra and choir concert, the use of footage from those films (The Proposition, The Road and Hell Or High Water, in these cases; also Wind River and West Memphis) solidified an experience of heightened physicality and contained but not wholly controlled emotion.

If Cave and Ellis could be said to have a “style” it would be the evocation of landscapes remade, combined with the yawning chasms of men (and in these films it is principally men) emptied out by absence – of hope or love or reason. And indeed language.

Tellingly, the contributions of additional voices – soprano Julie Lea Goodwin, briefly, and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, in the second half of the concert – are wordless, even as Cave sang to or against them. (At least until an encore which transfused belief and trust into a collective euphoria to “push the sky away”.)

Photo by Daniel Boud

That said, the one section which was not accompanied by film, selections from The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, reached across several tender divides and emphasised not just the fluidity of the SSO under conductor and arranger Nicholas Buc, but the gracefulness of the writing.

As for those composers, that Cave and Ellis were grooving on this experience was never in doubt. Their frequent exchange of smiles and gestures of encouragement, like a pair of boys still disbelieving they had been afforded this; their moments of closed-eyes absorption of, or long-limbed visceral response to, the controlled force of the orchestra and choir; Ellis’ exuberant swinging punch to the sky as simultaneous self-celebration and acknowledgement of the audience’s role in this – all spoke of the pleasures of this 100 minutes for them. And the hundreds of hours of collaboration before it.

A version of this review ran originally in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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