Cantata for John Monash – Review

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Published: 2nd September, 2017

Sir John Monash is arguably Melbourne’s finest son. That was certainly the general opinion at the time of his death, and even Robert Menzies remembered, “We automatically stood when the great man entered the room.” His contribution to shaping peacetime Victoria and Australia is as significant to his hastening the end of World War I. Therefore it is not surprising that composer David Kram and librettist Kevin O’Flaherty chose to entitle their 90-minute cantata celebrating the life of Monash “PEACE”.

Those familiar with the life and contributions of Monash will know that there is too much to cram into just 90 minutes. Some will regret the omission of certain aspects of his life while still being thankful for the project as a whole. For my own part I would like to have seen the inclusion of Monash’s letter to his wife describing the first Anzac Day commemorations with the troops, which he organised in 1916. I would also have welcomed a description of Monash’s planning and management of the vocational training of the troops after the war, which his biographer Geoffrey Serle described as “the very finest of the AIF’s and Monash’s achievements”, and had lasting implications for the direction of Australia’s education planning. On the other hand, the omission of certain details of his private life which many believe prevented him from consideration as Australia’s first native-born Governor General, is understandable considering the involvement of school choirs.

But, what of the work itself?

Kevin O’Flaherty, the librettist, has an impressive background as an academic, CEO in the business sector, poet, and researcher – to name but a few of his achievements. David Kram, the composer, is one of the most important and credentialed conductors currently working in Melbourne, and his skills are often utilised in the especially important interface between professional and amateur performers. Together they have crafted a cantata focused firmly on the involvement of the performers and the audience.

The work opens with a C major chord and the word “peace” and eventually closes on another C major chord sung in a closed-mouth hum to the final syllable of “shalom”. Both the opening and closing chords were beautifully balanced by the combined forces of orchestra, adult choirs, children’s choirs and soloists. Whether there was enough harmonic struggle along the way to give the final chord a satisfying sense of resolution will be a matter for each listener to decide. The composer, however, is straightforward about what he wanted to achieve. Even though we know that David Kram has the capacity to handle and create complex and even dissonant scores, he clearly states that he wanted this work to be “singable, playable and listenable”.

Along the journey, many of the movements are capable of standing alone for separate performance. In this respect, Kram has followed the lead of another Melbourne’s great sons – Percy Grainger – with the possibility for “elastic” scoring and differing versions to suit the forces and the circumstance. Thus, there are movements which can work as primary schoolyard songs (Jerilderie), undergraduate songs (alumni of certain institutions may recognise Postera Crecam Laude and Deo Patriae Litteris), a church anthem, several arias (including one reflecting on traditional names associated with indigenous service men and women) which deserve a place at future singing competitions and recitals, and several movements which are suitable for inclusion in choral concerts. Other movements call on known conventions. For instance, in the final movement, when the tenors launch into a fugue, the audience knows this pays tribute to a traditional English oratorio finale and provides reference to the “known world” of concert going.

Not all movements worked equally well – at least for this listener. The “catalogue” of Sir John’s achievements or the tribute to his engineering principles (sung over a “structural” repeated bass) seemed to miss their mark. On the other hand, there were far in which a trio of soloists reflect on the dreaded telegram announcing the death of a loved one over the background of the choir singing Latin words of the Requiem Mass finished beautifully; the soprano soloist, Lisa Ann Robinson, floating a top A over the muted choir and orchestra was particularly moving. In the section “Do Good” the Baritone soloist, Michel LaLoum, combined magically with the children’s chorus. The strings tended to dominate the texture, possibly because the woodwinds were on low risers so as not to obstruct the choir, but when the woodwinds were left by themselves the listener was drawn closer into the story – such as during the soliloquy in Part III. In particularly, the oboe “peace” theme, reminiscent of Dvořák, appears towards the beginning and end of the work and was beautifully played by Greg Pharo. Mezzo-soprano soloist Kristen Leich and bass soloist Eddie Mutiaumaseali’l performed their solo and ensemble work with admirable expressiveness and security of tone. Special mention must be made of the delightful singing of the young female soloist in “Hommage à Villers-Bretonneux”.

It is always a challenge to rehearse such a large work, often with separate forces in different venues, before bringing it together in a large, unfamiliar (at least for a number of the performers) public venue. Fortunately, with David Kram as composer and conductor there was a talented hand at the helm and the minor hiccups from both adult and school choirs did nothing to hinder the impact of the work.

John Monash may for some be an obscure figure from a past era, but as Jeffrey Rosenfeld (a descendent of Monash and a man of remarkable achievements in his own right) points out in the foreword of the program, Monash’s life still has much that speaks to us today. When urged to head a coup to overthrow the government during the difficult times of the depression, Monash responded “Depend on it, the only hope for Australia is the ballot box, and an educated electorate”.

I have had the opportunity to observe this work come together over several years including performances of sections of the work at Scotch College and the Shrine of Remembrance. No doubt there will be further fine tuning before parts of the work are performed in France next year to commemorate the centenaries of battles at Le Hamel and Amiens (often referred to as 0808). Composer, librettist, performers and all involved with bringing this project to fruition are to be congratulated for reminding us of the importance of the man and his works, and continuing Monash’s cherished mission of education about our heritage and our future.

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Editor’s note: Now that our reviewer, Bevan Leviston has filed his review, we have shifted our original “preview” story to be a postscript, with some background material that may be of interest .  

At this point, Classic Melbourne would also like to pass on the many favourable comments made about the choir or rather, choirs, because there are both adult choirs and a children’s ensemble needed to carry out composer David Kram’s vision for the music. We were particularly taken with the children, who not only matched the adults in their performance, but were remarkably poised and disciplined throughout, while also clearly enjoying the experience!

The whole event deserves an annual airing, in our view, perhaps in conjunction with an important anniversary.

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\BACKGROUND STORY:

Melbourne was pleased to be at the premiere of  this unique and exciting work, with just one performance in Melbourne, on September 9 at Hamer Hall. You’ll need to travel to France for a second performance – and that’s not till next year! we’ll have a review for you soon, but in the meantime let us remind you why this choral work is so important.

  • Peace – A Cantata for John Monash, is an exciting and unique musical journey into the life of John Monash.
  • The concert is perfectly timed to follow commemorations of WW1 battles at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.
  • 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the battle of Amiens, which Monash won decisively for Australia, and the final link in the story of PEACE will be its Amiens premiere on 24 April 2018.

The name of Monash is found all over Melbourne. But how much is really known about this man who inspired such honours, apart from his skills on the battlefield in WWl France?  In fact much of the fame of Sir John Monash comes from his contribution to the emergence of Melbourne itself as a great world city, with evidence of his engineering works even before the war, and well beyond.

Composed by David Kram and Poet Kevin O’Flaherty PEACE is the first musical work to tell the story of the great man’s life. It takes the form of a cantata, large in scope and in impact, as Melbournians are soon to hear for themselves. Let there be peace! The clarion call of Melbourne’s most famous son, Sir John Monash, opens the new massed choral work premiering in Hamer Hall on September 9.

This much-anticipated premiere has seen an enthusiastic response with over 200 singers from community, schools and university choirs in Victoria participating in what promises to be a memorable concert for everyone who knows and understands the impact John Monash has had on this city.

Now working on rehearsals with choir directors in Melbourne and regional Victoria, composer Dr David Kram reflects: “I’ve long been a fan of John Monash and as a musician, it felt natural to use colours of sound, to illustrate significant events of his life.  Kevin’s poem inspired me to compose PEACE as an opera, but gradually the writing took the form of a cantata; an en-masse piece for multiple soloists, choirs and orchestra, together representing the men, women and children from the places he lived in Melbourne and regional Victoria.”

Following key themes of love of family and loyalty to country, PEACE travels through the early years of John Monash’s life in Jerilderie to his student days at Melbourne University, as an engineer and business man in the heart of Melbourne, and as a soldier and leader of WWI Australian troops in Gallipoli and France.

There are poignant moments in the work where the tragedy of war and its effect on Australia are starkly juxtaposed with the innocence of children’s songs and larrikin student ditties of his days at university.Featuring four soloists, baritone Michele Laloum, soprano Lisa Anne Robinson, mezzo-soprano Kristin Leich, and bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Kram’s work brings to life key characters in Monash’s story: Bertha (his mother), Mathilde his sister and a cast of others who appear in recitatives, ensembles and arias commenting on significant events of his life. A symphony orchestra, conducted by David Kram, completes the work offering a rich diversity of sound.

Kram says“Monash and Melbourne are intertwined: – everywhere you go in this city you see glimpses of the great man – it’s where he lived and where his legacy lives on. We wouldn’t want the premiere of this monumental piece to be held anywhere else.”

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 Editor’s note: This is a sponsored piece, with core information provided to Classic Melbourne by More than Opera.

However, having been to the launch and witnessed the company’s commitment to this project – and heard some of the soloists perform excerpts from the cantata – I was particularly impressed that David Kram not only composed the work for symphony orchestra, he reconfigured it for string quartet for a promotional video, and for good measure strummed along with the soloists at the launch on the Glenfern piano!

 I am happy to endorse the project and urge you to attend it for yourself. I for one look forward to hearing the complete work, which I expect will be a great success!

For more information about PEACE and John Monash, visit More than Opera’s website: morethanopera.com

Suzanne Yanko