If you were after an “out of this world” experience, Inventi Ensemble’s latest concert at Hawthorn Arts Centre was the place to be. Their invitation to “come on a journey to outer space” with a new arrangement of Holst’s The Planets by Glynn Davies resulted in a trip well worth taking, despite bypassing Venus and Saturn. Woven through movements of the Holst was a new composition by Australian composer Johannes Luebbers. As a work commissioned by Inventi Ensemble, Inner Spaces was a collaboration that took full advantage of the special gifts of the players.
Inventi Ensemble audiences have had many opportunities to marvel at the virtuosity and artistry of its core members: flautist Melissa Doecke flute and oboist Ben Opie. On this occasion, they were joined by Peter Clark on violin, Merewyn Bramble on viola and Paul Zabrowarny on cello. Integral to this formidable instrumental mix was the visual contribution by Melbourne–based digital artist James Josephides. Inspired by the music, his animations reflected close collaboration with the musicians and insight into what would best complement the essence of each planetary movement.
After a short introductory welcome by a quietly enthusiastic Opie, who asked the audience to refrain from applause until the end of the concert, the house lights faded to blue then black. Points of light emerged from the large screen at the back of the stage area as fragments of softly plucked strings initiated “Black Holes”, the first of Luebbers’ five movements. Pinpricks of light and sound gradually morphed into complex swirls of orange that finally resolved into the Red Planet against a black backdrop as the music gained intensity. We were on what Luebbers described as Holst’s “metaphorical journey” and his “non-musical narrative, moving from uncomfortable realities to aspirational ideals”.
For a work as well known as The Planets (how many children have been introduced to classical music via Holst’s programmatic score?) it is difficult to escape having his original orchestration playing in the mind’s ear while listening to five instruments evoke the warlike dramatic pounding of “Mars”. Those who were unfamiliar with the original would have been impressed with this version as a piece in its own right, but it was especially fascinating to hear it against a background aural memory. It was a means of developing a deeper appreciation of Holst’s work as well as what can be achieved by virtuoso musicians. Clark, Opie and Doecke were generally most prominent in rising to the taxing musical challenges while polar ice-capped Mars slowly revolved in shifting perspectives
The pause between each movement as the players waited for the next set of animations to begin was a welcome opportunity for reflection. In the following piece, “You’ve got mail”, Luebber seeks to find a modern equivalent to Holst’s concept of war as “the antithesis of enlightenment and fulfillment” in the way we navigate social media and our “vanity and dependence on our constructed digital selves”. In contrast to the energetic attacking force of “Mars”, dance-like music and more lyrical passages for violin and a dominant oboe were heard as pulsating shades of grey images gradually resolved into the planet Mercury. Opie’s cor anglais took a leading role for Holst’s depiction of the Winged Messenger, while Clark created some wonderfully magical silvery (or mercurial) effects with his violin.
Visually, “Curation Nation” featured expanding circles of lights that finally spun into a planet as the musical mood shifted from serene and slightly melancholy to somewhat more abrasive. Jupiter then loomed as an enormous horizon that resolved into close-ups suggesting the enormous size of the planet as predominantly violin and winds poured forth the uplifting melody, “I vow to thee my country”.
“Analogue Voodoo” began with a waltz rhythm and featured plucked strings, while violin and a heavily rhythmic cor anglais accentuated the marching rhythmic drive of “Uranus”.
An amoeba-like blob expanding, swirling orbs, finally coalesced into a subdued blue/green grey planet during “Connection Not Found” where some lovely flute work and a slow building of intensity generated impetus and contrasted with the earlier movement. Various images of Neptune finally focused into a clear image of the planet with its asteroid belt as Holst’s repetitive music created an almost hypnotic effect. In this case there was no need of a choir of celestial sopranos and altos to evoke the mystical nature of this planet. Holst’s own version for two pianos included an organ for the mystical effect. According to his daughter, Holst particularly hated incomplete performances of his work that ended on the upbeat note of Jupiter jollity. The gradual fading to silence that ended this version would undoubtedly have met with his approval.
At the end of the performance, the sizeable audience appeared to be transported to another realm. There was no rushing to the exits as usually seen at interval or at the end of a concert; people seemed happier to sit in quiet contemplation or talk to each other and to the performers in the foyer. Inventi Ensemble had achieved another success in adventurous musical exploration.
Heather Leviston reviewed Inventi Ensemble’s “The Planets” given at Hawthorn Arts Centre on October 11, 2019.