Kurt Elling and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

As the crowd settled into the soft shufflings that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has come to expect, Conductor Ben Northey strode onto stage, keen to get things running. The first piece was unannounced but the program notes indicated it as Astor Piazolla’s Tangazo. Those familiar with the piece will know its opening string melody – played here in smooth unison by the SSO Cello and Double Bass sections. The style was nostalgic, connecting with the jazz style in terms of its era rather than musical style. The strings came together in lilting chords, a warm wave of polyphony, unified and buoyant like a feather floating between pockets of air. Those who are familiar with Tangazo will know something that a great percentage of the audience did not, that things would shift suddenly, an ensemble of comical accompaniment, emphasised by the quirky pizzicato, spicatto and indefinite slides of the first violins. Perhaps in these techniques, we found another reason for the work’s inclusion in this programme, the playful nature of jazz reflected in Piazolla’s toying. A third reason soon followed as various brass and woodwind instruments took long extended solos over the ensemble, a compositional device not unlike the improvised solo form the jazz genre is known for. A classical showcase to lead us into the main focus of the concert; the jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and his trio.
After the trio has taken their place front and centre, Elling arrives. He is dressed in a full suit, with black pants, white jacket and patterned bowtie. Before the cheers have subsided, the first tune is counted off – My Foolish Heart – with solo percussion by drummer Kobie Watkins playing the kit with his bare hands. Elling’s voice enters with great strength and control, singing ‘The scene is set for dreaming.’ Perfect lyrics for a night of reminiscence for the days when crooners could sell out concert halls and have a great deal of fun. It was obvious that Kurt Elling was more than capable of both. Seeing the flair and proficiency of this performance, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was timing that made the great crooners into household names. Elling may have missed that boat but, with his current success, his ship is surely coming in. As is customary in the jazz genre, Elling counted every new song in early so that when the audience had finished clapping the band was already cooking, pushing the retrofitted P.A. system which was in the form of speaker stacks suspended from the roof, with subwoofers on each side of stage.

Unfortunately, the one negative aspect of the concert was the mix. At times, lyrics were lost in the pure cacophony that a trio and symphony orchestra combination produces, and the subtler violin accompaniments were also swallowed into the electric vibe of the night. These specific issues were momentary but some were not so fleeting. Throughout the entire concert, Rob Amster’s double bass tone was almost absent, my companion and I both struggled to hear him properly, even when playing solo. Also, if one is to split hairs, Watkins’ ride cymbal had a very definite attack, but very little sustain. To further critique the set-up, the stand-out player, pianist Laurence Hobgood, was positioned behind the conductor’s podium, with the piano keys facing in towards the orchestra. The best we could hope for was a glimpse from the chin up as he played masterfully on the concert grand. Cleverly, Ben Northey realised this and would move during piano solos, but from the stalls this did very little to enhance visibility.

Elling’s performance was flawless, showing off his four octave range with modesty and charm. He is charismatic and likeable, a consummate professional with a heart for people. Perhaps the fusion of styles is best summed up by two reflections by the man himself who remarked elsewhere that playing with a Symphony Orchestra is like playing with a Big Band, truly a summation of the orchestral arrangements chosen which tended towards a big band sound. Elling thanked everyone for coming out, quoting the poet Gwendolyn Brooks – ‘It’s so much easier to stay at home. The nice beer ready.’ When the Opera House crowd gave little response to this, he added with a grin, ‘Works for me, but maybe this is more of a Cognac crowd’