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The View from the Stage

04 May, 2023

The Orchestra’s Principal Trombone, Ron Prussing, performed in the very first concert in the Sydney Opera House in 1973. 50 years on, he reflects on what the Opera House has meant to the Orchestra, and highlights from his remarkable career.

By Hugh Robertson

2023 marks an important anniversary in the cultural life of Australia – the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Opera House.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has been an integral part of the Opera House since even before Jørn Utzon drew his celebrated designs, with the Orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Eugene Goossens, instrumental in the campaign to build a concert hall on Bennelong Point.

It was one of the biggest nights in Australia’s cultural life on September 29, 1973, when the Orchestra performed the opening night concert. Conducted by Charles Mackerras and starring the incredible Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson.

Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Charles Mackerras conducts the Sydney Symphony at the opening of the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, 1973.

The concert represents both the rich history at the Opera House, but also its vital present and exciting future. One man who spans that entire period is Ron Prussing, the Orchestra’s Principal Trombone, who was on stage at the opening concert in 1973 – one particularly memorable event in a career filled with them.

Prussing had already been performing with the Sydney Symphony for several years by the time the Opera House opened. “My first job with the Orchestra was when I was called up from the Conservatorium High School,” he recalls. “I got the phone call through the headmistress – the second trombone at the time was ill, so I went and played second trombone under Moshe Atzmon conducting in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet – I was in my school uniform!”

As a young boy in Sydney in the 1960s, and an aspiring musician, Prussing was fascinated by the tumultuous process to actually build the Opera House, from delays to cost blowouts to Utzon’s departure from Australia. But all the while, he could sense that something big was happening.

“I was very young,” recalls Prussing, “But I just had this incredible sense that something of an occasion was going to happen, something very significant. And you know, it turned out looking not exactly like the design that Utzon submitted, so there was this this real air of mystery about it.”

Prussing performed with the Sydney Symphony frequently throughout the late 60s and early 70s, and remembers vividly the feeling in the Orchestra during the build-up to the Opera House opening.

“The orchestra was in good form [in 1973],” he says. “But there was an anticipation that this was maybe going to lead us into a new, somewhat uncharted era. We weren't quite sure what was going to happen.”

“You've got to pay a lot of respect to the players of the time of the move from the Town Hall into the Opera House. They moved into a new building, new surroundings, a lot more focus on them worldwide than had been in the Town Hall. I've said to many people in recent times that I believe the Orchestra stands on the shoulders of giants.”

When the big night finally arrived, that sense of occasion and moment only grew.

“The opening night concert was a spectacular event,” says Prussing with a smile. “Everybody was keen to move into their new home. And of course, we had Australia's pre-eminent conductor of the day in Charles Mackerras. He came back from Europe, and we had Birgit Nilsson singing Wagner that night. She was such an incredible soprano, the quintessential Wagnerian soprano of the day, and she just brought the house down.”

“I was so privileged to be part of that that night,” he continues. “I was so young and naïve, I was just revelling in this music. I just remember enjoying the spectacular nature of that incredible music. And it was music that I ultimately fell on very quickly, fell in love with.”

Having performed in the Sydney Opera House since Day One, Prussing is perhaps better qualified than anyone to speak about the difference between the old Concert Hall and the new, following its re-opening in July 2022 – another important milestone shared by the Opera House and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Sydney Symphony Brass
Sydney Symphony brass musicians at the re-opening concert of the Sydney Opera House in July 2022. Simone Young conducts Mahler 2. Photo credit: Craig Abercrombie.

“I think the sound is spectacular,” Prussing says enthusiastically. “I have both played in it, obviously, and I try and get to a lot of concerts when I'm rostered off. I enjoy listening to it, and I have had seats right up the back and it's as clear as clear can be – they are almost some of the best seats, now.”

“The balance is so much better, the strings, the bass end of the orchestra has just improved exponentially, and I think the blend of the orchestra is better because we can hear everybody, and we're getting used to the hall. It's a wonderful hall to play in.”

Here’s to many more years of memorable Sydney Symphony performances in the Sydney Opera House.