On July 17, 2021 Melbourne went into another COVID-19 lockdown and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s second performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with distinguished soprano soloist Jacqueline Porter was cancelled. Since then, it has continued to be a challenging time for the MSO. Following some highly successful concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl this year, the Season Opening Gala Concert really felt like a confident new beginning.
To mark the occasion, welcoming remarks were offered by Sophie Galaise, the MSO’s Managing Director, and the Honorable Linda Dessau AC, the Governor of Victoria. A short video projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage provided an opportunity for members of the orchestra to add their words of positivity. The choice of background music for the video was puzzling however. We all love the swelling sentiment of Elgar’s Nimrod theme, but there seemed too great a connection to British imperialism to sit comfortably in the context of this concert. Was there no suitable Australian composition? Then, enter Yorta Yorta composer Deborah Cheetham AO for her stirring Long Time Living Here. Standing serene and proud, her fine soprano and welcoming gestures embraced the audience as she sang the inviting melody in an ancient language of her forebears, accompanied by a smallish band of strings.
Deborah Cheetham continues to add to her extensive list of significant contributions to Australia’s cultural life as a composer, opera singer and artistic director. It is greatly to the credit of the MSO in appointing her 2020 Composer-in-residence, and in 2021 engaging her for a five-year appointment as First Nations Chair of the MSO. The second work on the Gala program, Baparripna (Yorta Yorta – Dawn) is a most welcome product of her collaboration with the MSO. In his short message of welcome that Jaime Martin, the MSO’s newly appointed Chief Conductor, includes in the printed program, he features and begins with Cheetham’s work and words describing Baparripna: “After the long night we wake beneath our mutual sky, all the sweetness of life’s possibilities laid before us”. Cheetham has also expressed her thrill that her long-anticipated collaboration with didgeridoo virtuoso, William Barton, has taken place at the suggestion of Jaime Martin.
The world premiere of Baparripna began with an almost inaudible murmur of upper strings and the soft breaths of the didgeridoo. Swishing sounds emerged then the didgeridoo rhythms built with clarinet echoes, bassoon and flute. The entry of timpani introduced a more sombre, ominous note with insistent clap sticks as the sound of the didgeridoo threaded its way through the rise and fall of orchestral instruments. A clarinet song and various wind solo instruments wove melodic lines. Sonorous lower strings sounded another ominous note as a percussive beat on a pulsing didgeridoo created a background to waves of orchestral sound. A repeated cello motif and repeated orchestral figures led to a rising full-bodied string melody with horns and other brass. It was a fanfare ending with full celebratory orchestral sound. In Baparripna Cheetham encompassed what she called “the despair of the lockdown, the earth groaning under the weight of what we have experienced … [and] hope”. William Barton’s phenomenal command of his instrument, enabling him to create atmosphere, colour and meaning was an integral part of the emotional response evoked in members of the large audience, many of whom responded with a standing ovation – and some with tears.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 Le Matin (The Morning), which began the main program, also begins quietly but quickly builds, rising like the sun. A sprightly tune ensues featuring, in this case, the mellifluous flute of Prue Davis, followed by more emphatic passages that alternate with other solo instruments, notably oboe and horn. The slow second movement Andante almost turns into a concerto for violin, in which Concertmaster Sophie Rowell charmed us with her elegantly delicate virtuosity alongside graceful interpolations from David Berlin’s cello. Davis’s flute continued the charm offensive in the Minuet while deft bassoon work impressed in the Trio. Violin and flute frolicked into the Finale leaving listeners delighted.
The evening preceding the first performance, an Open Rehearsal was made available – an absolute bargain at $15. I had hoped to have the opportunity to familiarise myself with Baparripna since new works generally have very limited exposure. Instead, the rehearsal was devoted to the final two movements of Mahler’s First Symphony. Disappointment quickly turned to gratitude as Jaime Martin’s enthusiasm and readiness to communicate with listeners led to a deeper understanding of his approach. Among a number of interesting comments was his connection of the third movement – Frère Jacques in a minor key – with the horrifyingly high mortality rate of young children. He also revealed details of the harp introduction to one section, seeing it as practice for his Fifth Symphony Adagio, and had the solo double bass repeat his introductory passage while complimenting him on outstanding work – his colleagues were equally appreciative. Describing the dramatic beginning of the fourth movement in terms of Chaos and Hell, Martin was keen to elicit appropriate savagery from the orchestra.
In the concert performance, Martin’s controlled attention to detail was evident from the first soft note. Mahler’s music is full of twists and turns in tempi and dynamics and the orchestra was with their conductor the whole way, playing with dynamic intention through the evocations of nature, various folk borrowings, and surges of emotional extremity. The eight horns were in great form and all sections of the orchestra were worthy of his obvious delight with what they had accomplished together. Applause after most movements culminated in a standing ovation at the end of Mahler’s final celebratory affirmations, with horns and trumpets standing triumphantly as they played.
This Gala concert was a wonderfully auspicious reawakening of Melbourne’s return to the shared enjoyment of a vital and and enriching musical world.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s New Beginnings: Season Opening Gala, performed at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on February 25, 2020.